The Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) is exploring all available options to get more CARICOM member states to make it their final Court of Appeal, according to recently-appointed President Justice Adrian Saunders.
Justice Saunders on Thursday made a commitment to use his seven-year term at the helm of the court to make this goal a reality.
Thirteen years after the court was inaugurated, only Guyana, Barbados, Belize and Dominica have accepted the court as their final appellate jurisdiction. This, Saunders insisted, has got to change and he later stressed that the starting point has got to be reaching the ordinary people.
“I think that our strategy has to change; that we need to find ways of reaching ordinary men and women, boys and girls, because governments, when they don’t take a step that they should take, they do that because they are unsure what the political consequences are likely to be,” he told those attending the Guyana Manufacturing and Services Association Limited (GMSA) annual business luncheon at the Pegasus Hotel.
Justice Saunders pointed out that the court has to see what it can do along with allies and stakeholders in order to try to create a climate that the governments of all the countries that have not yet acceded “feel comfortable in taking the decision, which we think is the right one to make.”
Justice Saunders, who was speaking in Guyana for the first time since taking office on July 4th, informed the audience that the court’s communication’s department has been advised that there should be more involvement in social media. He stressed that Tweeting some of its decisions and highlighting some of the work that is being done is clearly not a robust enough approach. “We need to find attractive ways of informing people more about what we do,” he said, while adding that people often get away with telling untrue stories about the court.
He recalled a statement made by some in St. Vincent that the court is lazy and hardly does any work. “What are the facts? The facts are that between January and now, for the Commonwealth Caribbean Countries that sent their appeals to the Judicial Committee, that court has delivered 11 judgements and they have the big two—Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago—that are sending appeals to them. We only have Guyana and Barbados and Belize. Dominca has only sent two cases to us but in the same length of time we delivered 22 judgements, double the amount,” he stressed.
Justice Saunders noted that the court has to ensure that people don’t believe that “kind of garbage” and that they are provided with information that helps to dispel such myths. He told reporters after the luncheon ended that the key is influencing public opinion, which is where the court will place greater emphasis. To do so, he said, the most appropriate communication channels have to be found. “A lot of persons are either apathetic about the court because it doesn’t touch their daily lives or they are misinformed about the court and so there is a lot of scope for us to provide them with greater information about the value of having… a Caribbean court to accept your final appeals in place of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, which is based in London,” he said.
Meanwhile, during a question and answer session at the luncheon, Justice Saunders also described as unfortunate the poor response by CARICOM governments to the attack on the court by former Barbadian Prime Minister Freundel Stuart.
“I don’t know if any [government] did [respond]. I can’t recall any and that was unfortunate if it didn’t happen but the level of support we received from Barbadians from the issue… we were very comforted,” he said in response to a question posed by attorney Nigel Hughes.
Hughes sought to get a reaction from Justice Saunders on the lack of response from governments in the region. Many had described Stuart’s comments, which had their genesis in an unfavourable court judgement, as an attack on the integrity of the court.
Noting that the remarks made were unfortunate, Justice Saunders told the audience that “it was not unexpected that a litigant who loses will be upset.” He said that what was very heartening, though, was the fact that many ordinary Barbadian citizens defended the court and said very positive things.
In the circumstances, he said that the court did not find it necessary to say or do anything in response to the remarks made.
On May 20th, while on the elections campaign trail, Stuart made it clear that once the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) returned to office, Barbados will be withdrawing from CCJ.
Stating quite clearly he was not taking issue with the decisions coming out of the court, he said however, he would not be changing his mind.
To loud applause from the crowd gathered for a national meeting at Eagle Hall, St Michael, Stuart said Barbados was the first to join and could be the first to leave. He noted Jamaica kept “a safe distance” as did Trinidad and Tobago, even though the court’s headquarters are there. He also noted that the people of St Vincent and the Grenadines decided by referendum to stay with the Privy Council.
Stuart said he had spoken to the former court president Sir Dennis Byron some years ago and he also raised concerns in Parliament before it was dissolved that judgments coming out of the CCJ were not reflecting positively on Barbados. “I am not going to have Barbados disrespected by politicians wearing robes,” he was quoted as saying.
“I don’t subscribe to disrespect and I think that the attitude coming from Port of Spain leaves much to be desired in terms of how it is treating Barbados. And I am not going to have a situation where other countries in the Caribbean keep a safe, safe distance from that court, while Barbados supports it and Barbadians are treated with the kind of disrespect that I see,” he added.
Just over a week after those comments were made, Stuart and his party lost the elections.
Justice Saunders did admit that it is of concern that Trinidad, where the seat of the court is located, is yet to accept the CCJ as its final court.
He was asked whether he was comfortable sitting in a country which does not recognize the court’s authority.
He said in response that he it is disappointing that Trinidad does not yet send their appeals to the CCJ before pointing out that this has a multiplying effect because the countries that are yet to accede regularly question why they should when the state in which the court is housed does not send their appeals to it. He said that while there is nothing the court can do about that, “it is a cause for concern.”
The court, which is a vital part of the effort to strengthen CARICOM through a Single Market and a Single Economy, is meant to be the highest Appeal Court, considering and determining appeals in both civil and criminal matters from courts within the jurisdictions of Member States of the Community, which are parties to the Agreement establishing the CCJ.