St Vincent and the Grenadines is not a particularly litigious society, yet on any given day, someone here is seeking redress in court for wrongs done to them, presumed or real. And every day the officers of the court – magistrates, judges, prosecutors, lawyers – genuflect to a cardinal principle: the rule of law shall prevail.
The rule of law consists of three components. First, everyone is equal before the court of law. Second, an impartial court will listen to all the evidence presented before it and render its judgment consistent with the legal principles that undergird the individual case.
And third, both the winners and the losers will abide by the judgment of the court. To fail to do so of course means that the Rule of Law does not exist, and anarchy prevails.
The recent cases involving Cornelius John, Ashelle Morgan and Karim Nelson are a powerful reminder of why the rule of law exists. The case involved a set of facts which were sufficiently disturbing to bring many Vincentians out into the streets in protest of what they deemed to be the absence of justice for Mr. John. But a court of public opinion is not a court of law. It is not bound by legal precedents, rules of evidence, constitutional constraints and or an impartial arbiter to rule on what is permissible or impermissible as prosecutors and defence lawyers make their pleadings. There, in the court of public opinion, the mob rules. And mob rule only follows one principle: might is right.
The court of law is therefore the single most important institution that guarantees all Vincentians access to the rights and freedoms laid out in our constitution without resort to bloodshed. Governments have lost cases in the court of law. The rich, wealthy, and powerful have lost cases in the court of law. And the meek, the weak, and the mild are in principle guaranteed that they will be heard in a court of law. Their voices are neither greater nor lesser than anyone else – or that is how it should be. They may win. They may lose. But always our courts remain guided by the principle of stare decisis – that apart from truly exceptional circumstances, the decision of the courts must be guided by decisions of all previous courts. When precedent prevails, the rule of law prevails.
Some observers have expressed discomfort or even dismay with the outcome of the Cornelius John case. Some claim that John did not receive justice. But nothing is more important to the delivery of justice than the strictest adherence to the court regulated process through which the case was decided. And this is precisely what took place. This process cannot eliminate imperfect outcomes all of the time. But it does demand acceptance of the decision of the court, or if sufficiently aggrieved, there is an appeal process. In accepting the decisions of our court, we preserve the most fundamental gift that our courts offer us: the supremacy of the rule of law. Vincentians now, Vincentians in the past, and Vincentians in the future have every reason to protect this most sacred principle of Vincentian life.