Unfortunately opposition parliamentarians abstained in CCJ vote
For such an important occasion as the amendment of the Constitution of Dominica to delink our court from the British Privy Council and accede to the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) as our sole appellate court, one would have expected a grand occasion filled with pomp and ceremony when the House of Assembly met last Tuesday to take that historic step.
But, unfortunately, the occasion was extremely low keyed; the legal fraternity stayed away; there were no past presidents or former parliamentarians present; few ordinary folks for whom the CCJ is described as a giant leap forward in terms of access to justice, showed interest.
Nonetheless, Dominica has taken that important step of acceding to the CCJ even though the opposition United Workers Party (UWP) abstained from voting on the Bill because, among other complaints, the party had serious reservations about the decisions of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court on matters related the contentious dual citizenship issue and many election petitions.
But we also got the distinct impressions that the UWP decided to abstain because it did not want to partake in what has been called "Skerrit's thing" since the DLP appears to be using Dominica's position on the CCJ to glorify the image of their "Great Leader" especially during an active election campaign.
But that is the UWP's decision. As we stated in an earlier editorial, Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit seemed to be rather proactive on the issue of Dominica's decision to make the CCJ our final appellate court. And according to the UWP he seemed to be in an "uncomfortable haste".
As you may be aware, Mr Skerrit revealed to the nation late last year that he had written to the British government about Dominica's intention and he anticipated and immediate and positive response. The British, as expected, had no objection. We hope the other political leaders of the region, who have placed this important issue on the back-burner, will be inspired by Mr Skerrit's proactive decision.
As these leaders, such as Dr. Ralph Gonsalves will argue, to effectively delink from the British Privy Council they would have to follow constitutional procedures of which a two-thirds majority vote in parliament, followed by a referendum, is necessary. It would therefore require, they will further argue, an expensive national public education campaign to show the significance, implications and operation of the CCJ. In that case, then we suggest that these countries should stop procrastinating and just do it.The recent results of a referendum, on the issue of the CCJ in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, should not be a deterrent.
Mr. Skerrit was less restrained by the Constitution of Dominica on the matter of the nation's final court. Section 42 (4) of the Dominica Constitution expressly allows us to reconstitute our highest court without a referendum provided that the Government does so in agreement with the United Kingdom government.
As we stated earlier, it is our view that the majority of Dominicans would have no problem with ending the relationship with the Privy Council. Few Dominicans accessed the Privy Council anyway because the process is so expensive.
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.
As you are aware, the CCJ is intended to be the court of last resort and has exclusive jurisdiction in respect of the interpretation and application of the Revised 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.
On that subject the Caribbean has demonstrated the debilitating impact of a lack of self-confidence. For instance, Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar said in Parliament some time ago that she was being cautious and would wait and consider the "quality of their (CCJ) decisions in deciding the future course of our judicial system".
Jamaica, as well, has expressed serious reservations about severing the umbilical cord of the Privy Council; Jamaicans have even began questioning the validity of CARICOM, and hence the CCJ, to the economic and social development of their country.
But it is the Privy Council, as a final court and as a fair dispenser of justice that has been of questionable value to countries of the Caribbean. As Sir Dennis Byron, the President of the CCJ illustrated during a speech to the Dominica Association of Industry and Commerce (DAIC) in January 2013, between 2008 and 2011, the Jamaican Court of Appeal issued an average of 105 judgments per year. However, during that period, roughly six judgments on average were delivered in Jamaican cases by the Privy Council. Comparatively, the Privy Council may have heard less than 10 cases, on behalf of Dominicans, since it was established in 1833.
Dominicans who have been opposed to the establishment of the CCJ say they fear that party politics would eventually interfere with the operations of the CCJ. Members of the opposition UWP make that point rather forcefully because of recent decisions by the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court in the Roosevelt Skerrit/Petter St. Jean dual citizenship case. Even if these arguments pertaining to the CCJ may be valid, the advantages to ordinary Dominicans way out-number the disadvantages.
One major advantage is that the CCJ is expected to be a roving court and hence travelling to Jamaica or St. Lucia would be much cheaper to the individual who has to face the court. In our view the Privy Council to a poor Dominican is like a Rolls Royce that he has inherited; it sits in his garage gathering dust because he cannot afford the cost of starting up the engine.
The CCJ has become our final court and this signals that we are slowly becoming more independent. It is time to take other steps on that long journey towards complete independence.