Major step forward for Caribbean Court of Justice
Almost everyone expected the British government's positive response to Dominica's recent decision to make the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) the country's final court. Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit happily announced recently that he received a letter from the British government stating that the UK had no objection to Dominica's de-linking from the Privy Council.
Additionally, it was heartening to know that Dominica has again led the sub-region in important areas, this time of sovereignty and jurisprudence. Our own Irwin LaRocque, the Secretary General of CARICOM said the move "heralds a positive start to the year for the integration movement".
He added: "It is my hope that Dominica will lead the way for those other Member States with similar constitutions. I look forward to the early passage of the required legislation so that Dominica can join Barbados, Belize and Guyana in completing its circle of sovereignty."
Late last week we also heard the leaders of the opposition United Workers Party (UWP) say that they had no difficulty with the CCJ as the island's final court but that the UWP continues to be concerned about the quality of justice coming out of the High Court in Dominica and the Eastern Caribbean Court of Justice. Loss of faith
As you will recall, the most significant case that may have caused the UWP to lose faith in the court system was when Justice Gertel Thom ruled, in January 2012, in favour of Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit and Education Minister Petter Saint Jean in respect to two election petition cases filed by the opposition United Workers Party.
With respect to Skerrit, Justice Thom ruled that the petitioner "failed to lead any evidence to show that Mr. Skerrit was by virtue of his own act under acknowledgement of allegiance, obedience or adherence to a foreign power of State". Earlier Judge Thom had virtually handcuffed herself when she did not allow a request for Skerrit to show his passport or to take the witness stand. The case went before the judges of the OECS court of appeal and many Dominicans, especially supporters of the UWP, were dissatisfied with that court's decision. That ruling, many persons believe, further dampened the UWP's enthusiasm for the CCJ as the Dominica's final court.
Recall too that that enthusiasm took a nose dive with Justice Errol Thomas' rather confusing and absolutely unconvincing reasons for upholding the Dominica Labour Party (DLP) argument that a number of election petitions should be struck out because they were allegedly an "abuse of the process of the court", "wholly misrepresented" without "material facts" as well as "vague and generalised". In his 65-page judgement, Justice Thomas insinuated that the UWP was engaged in "a fishing expedition" when it asked his court to determine whether the December 2009 general election had been marred by widespread bribery and fraud.
After the judgment, almost every Dominican who followed the election campaign closely probably concluded that Judge Thomas was living on another planet to suggest that the UWP was casting its net far and wide in the hope of catching some persons who were involved in corrupting the electoral process. Almost everyone in Dominica knew some person who was bribed to come from overseas to vote.
Persons who have been opposed to the establishment of the CCJ have always expressed fears that party politics would eventually interfere with the operations of the CCJ. That is one of the main reasons why only a few countries of the Caribbean have accepted the CCJ as their final court of appeal. Recall that the agreement establishing the CCJ came into force on 23 July 2003.The court was inaugurated on 16 April 2005 in Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago which is also the seat of the Court. At the moment only Guyana, Barbados and Belize have completely accepted the CCJ. Though many persons have congratulated Prime Minister Skerrit for taking that important step for Dominica, many others wonder why it took him so long.
The CCJ is intended to be the court of last resort and has exclusive jurisdiction in respect of the interpretation and application of the Treaty of Chaguaramas, the original agreement setting up the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME).
In addition, the CCJ hopes to be the final court of appeal for CARICOM member states, replacing the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) for Anglophone member states. In the exercise of its appellate jurisdiction, the CCJ hopes to hear appeals from common law courts within the jurisdictions of parties to the agreement establishing the CCJ, and will be the highest municipal court in the region.
But many other Caribbean countries are playing hide and seek with the CCJ and the sovereignty of the region. Trinidad and Tobago's Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar said in Parliament her government intends to introduce legislation to abolish appeals to the Privy Council but she was being cautious and would wait and consider the "quality of their (CCJ) decisions in deciding the future course of our judicial system".
Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar decision probably mirrors that of her constituents. Recall a story published in the Trinidad Express some time ago which gave the impression that Trinidadians were being overburdened financially by the CCJ. The story revealed that just over $200 million had been spent by the Government of Trinidad and Tobago to fund the CCJ since its inception in 2005. As one would expect, the revelation released an avalanche of concern about the cost of the CCJ to Trinidadians and many wondered whether it was worth that high cost. There were also many calls for the country's withdrawal from the Caribbean court.
But without the CCJ, the CSME would essentially be crippled and its foundation would collapse. On the other hand, as a replacement for the Privy Council of England, the CCJ is absolutely crucial since the Mother Country has clearly indicated it intends to sever that umbilical cord. Nevertheless, if our confidence in our court system, and ultimately the CCJ, is to grow, judges of the Caribbean need to give ordinary people the impression that justice is done every time and that the system is not so ponderous and insensitive that citizens have to wait for years before the court rules on crucial questions about the legitimacy of government and Head of State.