A raw nerve in T&T

In an extraordinary editorial, last Saturday, the Trinidad Guardian excoriated the President of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), Sir Dennis Byron, for calling on those countries that have not yet accepted the CCJ as their final court of appeal, “to fully realise our independence by acceding to the appellate jurisdiction of the CCJ.”

Now, Sir Dennis did not make specific mention of Trinidad and Tobago in his feature address, The CCJ and the Evolution of Caribbean Development, to the 15th Annual Conference of the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies (SALISES), on April 23, in Port of Spain. If anything, his speech reads as an eminently sensible assessment of the role that the CCJ plays and must continue to play in the regional integration project. But somehow, Sir Dennis must have touched a raw nerve in T&T.

For, instead of entering into a rational discussion based on the country’s constitutional norms, legal traditions, juridical practices and political climate, all that the Guardian could muster was the following ad hominem attack: “Sir Dennis continues to hold on to a title that is itself a vestige of the colonial era, namely his knighthood. Until such time as Sir Dennis can relinquish his membership of Her Majesty’s Privy Council and surrender his knighthood, it is difficult for him to call on any government to complete the cycle of their independence by giving up the very Privy Council to which he belongs.”

It is an astonishing case of playing the man and not the ball. But in shying away from a serious debate about T&T’s continuing reluctance to join Barbados, Belize and Guyana in recognising the CCJ’s appellate jurisdiction, the newspaper is perhaps only reflecting the current lack of seriousness about CARICOM on the part of some member governments and key institutions

Let us put aside the matter of the CCJ President’s anachronistic title; after all, it is not his fault that his country still has Queen Elizabeth II as its Head of State and that he has been so rewarded for a distinguished judicial career. As head of one of CARICOM’s structures of unity, however, Sir Dennis has already made it clear that he is a firm believer in Caribbean integration and he has been a worthy advocate of the value of the CCJ to the regional project and the social and economic development of CARICOM.

In respect of the original jurisdiction of the CCJ, Sir Dennis sees the Court as “the lynchpin [of the CARICOM Single Market and Economy] as it acts as the guardian of the RTC [Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas] and has exclusive jurisdiction to determine disputes arising from its operation.” Thus, he argues, “The CCJ is uniquely positioned to ensure that the promise offered by this single economic space, this further extension of our dream for a cohesive and united Caribbean region, is translated from the text of the RTC into a sustainable commercial reality.” Sir Dennis also cites the recent judgment in favour of Shanique Myrie against the Government of Barbados as “a testament to the Court’s ability to breathe life into the text of the RTC” and a clarification of the right of CARICOM nationals to hassle-free travel in the region and an automatic six-month stay upon entry into another CARICOM state.

With regard to the appellate jurisdiction of the Court, Sir Dennis could have been more forthcoming. By simply highlighting that the CCJ “has offered clarity, legal certainty and stability” on important elements of Guyanese land law, with its “unique and complex” mixture of Roman-Dutch law and English common law, he seems content to let the CCJ’s record in delivering “high quality justice” to the people of the region speak for itself, before concluding with the call to close the circle of independence, thereby inadvertently arousing the Guardian’s ire.

A more reasonable and pointed commentary by the Guardian would have been to ask why T&T, which attained republican status in 1976, still clings to the apron strings of the former colonial power in the form of the Privy Council; why Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, in an interview with the BBC in March 2011, dismissed the argument for T&T to replace the Privy Council with the CCJ, even though she was a minister in the United National Congress government that successfully bid for T&T to be the seat of the CCJ; why the Prime Minister should have, in 2012, suggested that the CCJ could be the country’s final court for criminal matters whilst still retaining the Privy Council for civil matters (an ambivalent position rejected by CARICOM Heads); and whether there are powerful vested interests in the country’s legal fraternity determined to maintain cosy and lucrative relations with London chambers.

 

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