Opposition leader Bharrat Jagdeo yesterday said separate investigations ought to be done by the judiciary and the executive into the conduct of Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs Basil Williams SC during a recent court case.
Jagdeo told a press conference that President David Granger has a responsibility to investigate, at the end of which Williams could be disciplined either by removing him from office or reassigning him to another ministry.
Williams, during a recent hearing, had an exchange with Justice Franklin Holder, who subsequently rose from the bench and left the court room without adjourning the matter.
Jagdeo had previously called on Granger to launch an immediate investigation into what transpired. Yesterday, he reiterated his position and added that this should also be looked at by the judiciary as well as the police.
Justice Holder, in a letter to acting Chancellor Yonette Cummings-Edwards, said he left the bench after Williams uttered the words “I could say what I want to say and when I want to say it, I have always been like that.” Justice Holder also said Williams, in a “truculent manner,” informed him “that the last person who told him what he should not say was a Magistrate and he is now dead.
“I am not prepared to sit to hear Mr Williams as an attorney-at-law in any matter whatsoever, unless he makes a genuine and meaningful apology to my satisfaction, in open court, both to me and to the Members of the Bar since they too were scandalized by his despicable conduct,” Justice Holder wrote.
Jagdeo yesterday expressed belief that the judge was standing up for what he felt was right when he penned that letter.
“If Basil Williams is the person representing us, he has to do so with decorum and respect befitting of the office,” he said.
“Justice Holder did the right thing. He could have probably cited the Attorney General for contempt of court and that is debatable—whether he should have or should not have—but I think had he done that and just left the matter there then we would not have been able to understand the full impact of this event on our country and a pattern of behaviour that seems to be coming from this government,” he said.
According to Jagdeo, the Chancellor has promised an investigation and the President may be written to about the matter.
He said it was the PPP that called on the President to convene a Commission of Inquiry because “this is just not about contempt… his behaviour in court is one thing but his ability, whether he is still fit to hold office, [it] is only the President [who] can make that determination because he was appointed by the President.”
Jagdeo told reporters that it is the President who has to discipline Williams at the end of an investigation.
“This is not just an ordinary lawyer going to court and making these statements to a judge, this is the Minister of Justice, the Attorney General, the leader of the Bar, a Senior Counsel. That is the difference here,” he said.
Williams had explained that when Justice Holder indicated that he was going to adjourn the matter, he asked whether he could be permitted to ask a witness one final question and was permitted to do so.
According to Williams, after noticing that the judge was about to leave the bench, he enquired whether the answer to the last question was recorded. “The judge to my surprise said, ‘Mr Williams you are not in charge of my court.’ And I said, ‘No sir’ …but the judge then said to me ‘Mr Williams I interpret what you are saying to mean that I deliberately did not record the answer that was given by the witness previously and I take great umbrage at that.’ And I said, ‘Sir, surely that is not on your record, because I never said anything to that effect or intended anything like that,’” he explained.
Williams recalled that he told the judge that his comments reminded him of a similar allegation made against him by a magistrate several years ago.
“He [the magistrate] cited me for contempt and the rest is history. And I said that since then I have always been very particular about what I say to the courts and to be precise so that nothing else like that could return and I said coincidentally that magistrate is dead now and I moved on,” he said.
Senior Counsel Ralph Ramkarran has since said that Williams could face serious sanction over his courtroom behaviour.
Noting that there are rules about the behaviour of lawyers in court, Ramkarran said that the judge could there and then have cited Williams for contempt in the face of the court, as he indicated in his letter to the Chancellor. To do so, he would have had to inform Williams that he was charging him with contempt, state the particulars of his conduct which amounted to contempt and invite him to answer the charge. Ramkarran said that Williams could have answered it then, or asked for an adjournment to mount a defence, or pleaded guilty, later. If Williams pleaded or was found guilty, he could have been fined or worse, imprisoned.
Ramkarran pointed out that the Legal Practitioners (Amendment) Act 2010 Rule VII (3) states that “an Attorney-at-Law shall treat the court with courtesy and respect…” Rule VII (5) says that an “Attorney-at-Law shall not (engage) in angry verbal exchanges in Court even if made sotto voce.” Section 34(2) further says, “An Attorney-at-Law who breaches the code of conduct counts as an act of professional misconduct.”
“Mr Williams, a highly visible public figure holding one of the most important positions in government, can avoid the sanction of the judge by not appearing before him again, but this is not an option for a person holding his offices and especially since the matter has reached the Chancellor (ag) and the President. Since a private apology is now out of the question because the judge’s letter demanding an apology in open court is in the public domain, Mr Williams could now be forced to consider a public apology. Failing this, the Chancellor (ag) can convene the Full Court and set in motion the process to hear a complaint of misconduct against Mr Williams. The Full Court can impose a penalty as severe as disbarment,” Ramkarran asserted.
Further, he said that the President has no business in how the courts handle this matter or in mediating an outcome.