Former Clerk says time may be right for legal counsel at National Assembly

With government and the opposition continually clashing over legislative drafting and vetting, former Clerk Frank Narain says the time may have come for the National Assembly to have its own legal counsel.

Narain said that during the 51 years he served the Parliament Office, the question of legal counsel for the National Assembly was irrelevant since the configuration of the National Assembly was different. “

“We had a different configuration of parliament in those days; a government always had a majority in the legislative body and that majority carried the day. There were never any of these problems.

But now the opposition feels that the bills should not go to the Attorney General so maybe the time has come for a change,” he told Stabroek News after the opening ceremony of the 16th Biennial Regional Conference of Presiding Officers and Clerks of the Caribbean, and the Americas and the Atlantic Region of the Common-wealth Parliamentary Association, which he attended on the invitation of the current Clerk Sherlock Isaacs.

“A one-member majority on the side of the opposition its creating a lot of problems; the opposition is seeing things differently, so maybe the time has come for them to have legal counsel there in the National Assembly,” he added.

Barbara Webster-Bourne, Speaker of the House of Assembly in Anguilla
Barbara Webster-Bourne, Speaker of the House of Assembly
in Anguilla

In light of the ongoing debate about whether the National Assembly should have its own legal counsel as opposed to sending passed bills to the Chambers of the Attorney General for scrutiny, Stabroek News opted to engage Narain as well as several representatives of the 15 commonwealth countries who over the next few days will meet to discuss matters facing their legislatures.

Former National Assembly Clerk  Frank Narain
Former National Assembly Clerk
Frank Narain

Asked if he thought the opposition’s demand for the National Assembly to have its own legal counsel was just, Narain said, “The function of an opposition is to oppose and that is what they are doing.”

Speaker of Guyana’s National Assembly Raphael Trotman and Isaacs have both expressed the need for the National Assembly to have its own legal counsel, if only to ensure the body’s independence from the executive arm of government. Isaacs had even sent a request to the Public Service Ministry seeking to create the vacancies necessary to procure legal counsel and the other relevant staff that would need to supplement the responsibilities of the office.

Though the ministry has not formally responded      to Isaacs, Public        Service Minister Jennifer Westford, at a recent press conference, said that while she does not mind increasing the staff of Parliament Office’s existing departments, she does not see the ministry creating an entirely new department for the purpose of enabling them to acquire legal counsel.

 Other legislatures

Since the way forward in such situations may be guided by looking at other political systems,

Stabroek News spoke to representatives from several legislatures of the states that are here for the conference.

Barbara Webster-Bourne, Speaker of the House of Assembly in Anguilla, told this newspaper that after bills are passed, they are sent to the official charged with the task of giving or withholding assent. Since Anguilla is an overseas territory of the UK, assent is given by a Governor-General, who is a representative of the Queen and gives assent or withholds such on her behalf.

She explained that bills in Anguilla are drafted by a drafting team in their Attorney General’s Cham-bers before they are gazetted and then put to public consultation. Bills then need to be approved by the Executive Council before they are brought to the House of Assembly, where they are debated, and in some cases, amended at the committee stage.

 

Deputy Speaker of the Legislature of the province of New Brunswick, Canada,
Deputy Speaker of the Legislature of the province of New Brunswick, Canada,

But once bills are passed in the House, they are sent directly to the Governor-General, who, acting on the instruction of the Queen, decides to give or withhold assent.

Stabroek News also spoke to the Deputy Speaker of the legislature of the province of New Brunswick, Canada. Like in Anguilla, when Bills are passed by the legislature, they are sent to a representative of the Queen–the Lieutenant Governor–who, acting on instruction of the Queen, gives or withholds their royal assent to bills.

Jose Lloyd, Clerk of the St. Kitts legislature, also said that bills passed by their law making arm, after being signed by the Speaker and himself, are sent to their Governor General, who, acting on behalf of the Queen, gives or withholds royal assent. After a bill is assented to, he said, it is sent to be gazetted.

In Trinidad too, bills passed by the legislature are sent for assent after they are passed by Parliament. Stabroek News understands that when bills are passed in Trinidad, they are sent for assent and after they are assented to they are dispatched to the Attorney General’s Officers for implementation. Again, there is no system in place for bills to be sent to an intermediary, as is Guyana’s practice, before being sent for assent.

The issue of legal counsel for the National Assembly became prominent due to the concerns that the existing arrangement allows government to delay bills passed by the National Assembly, particularly those it is not in favour of, from receiving assent.

Currently, after bills are passed in National Assembly, they are prepared by the Clerk and his staff, who work hand in hand with the Chief Parliamentary Counsel (CPC) of the Legal Affairs Ministry.

Bills are then sent again to the CPC and Attorney General for assent certification, after which they are sent back to the Clerk, who then sends them to the president for him to officially give or withhold his assent.

This system was never a problem before the opposition won the majority of seats in the National Assembly at the last elections, giving them the ability to pass bills without government, although presidential assent is ultimately required to make them law.

On several occasions, bills passed by the National Assembly have stayed with the Attorney General’s Chambers for unusually long periods of time.

The most recent example is the four local government bills which were passed by the National Assembly on August 7th  and are still with the Attorney General’s Chambers and Minister Anil Nandlall has said he is awaiting direction from the Office of the President on whether to issue the bills with assent certificates.

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