Justice Wit: You are paying for something you don’t use!
April 29, 2011
Justice Wit: You are paying for something you don’t use!

The debate about replacing the Queen’s Privy Council with the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) as the final appellate court of St. Vincent and the Grenadines continues.{{more}}

To date, Barbados, Guyana and Belize are the only three CARICOM member countries to have signed on, with the Grenadian government talking about the possibility of that country doing the same.

However, the CCJ came into existence shortly after the Privy Council’s ruling in the Jamaican case involving Earl Pratt and Ivan Morgan who had been sentenced to death.

The Privy Council, however, ruled that any person sitting on death row for more than five years had already endured harsh treatment, and as a consequence that person’s death sentence would have to be reduced.

Therefore, the subsequent emergence of a Caribbean based appellate court had some persons saying that the CCJ was going to be a hangman’s court and a judicial establishment where politicians around the region could do what they wanted.

But there has been a call by many scholars around the region for the CCJ to replace the Privy Council as the region’s final appellate court.

This was the premise of a panel discussion last Tuesday, April 19, at the Methodist Church Hall entitled ‘The CCJ: An Evolution of Caribbean Justice’. The lecture was the second in a series of lectures put on by the Regional Integration and Diaspora Unit (RIDU).

Panelists included attorney Richard Williams who presented on the implications of the CCJ for Vincentian Jurisprudence; economist Kenny Baker who gave a layman’s perspective and Justice Jacob Wit, one of the six Judges who currently sit on the CCJ. Justice Wit provided the audience with a look at the background and purpose of the CCJ.

Williams, in his presentation, took the position that the Privy Council was not accessible to many persons living in the region and that it was too expensive.

“At this stage it (Privy Council) is for the rich,” Williams explained.

The average cost to take a matter there would cost between 40,000 and 50,000 pounds sterling.

“Rather than using Privy Council, using the CCJ will be easier for all,” he said, adding that all that would be required for the region’s court is for clients to be able to afford to have their lawyers go to Trinidad to argue the case.

And with the advent of teleconferencing and other forms of technology, William said that in most cases, lawyers may not have to go anywhere.

Similarly, filing paperwork was easy due to the establishment of individual court registries throughout member states, Williams contended.

Another disadvantage according to the young lawyer was that the judges who sit on the Privy Council cannot appreciate our way of life and the cultural aspect of our way of life in St Vincent.

Williams responded to the argument that the CCJ was established to repeal the death penalty, saying on the contrary, persons would welcome any initiative in an attempt to stem the seeming crime wave affecting the coutries in the region.

He further explained that the Privy Council was not operating in our interest as there were several cases which it stated it was not going to deal with, including the maintenance of wives and children.

Williams was of the opinion that such issues were, however, important and warranted final precedent judgments.

“This is not a court we should have as a final court. We need a court that understands what it means to be Vincentian and a Caribbean person,” Williams said.

Baker was brief in his layman’s presentation, saying that with the apparent “friction” which existed among the different territories of CARICOM, would the CCJ be able to survive?

According to the economist, the countries of the region were having issues with each other in the area of trade and free movement.

“We have pumped a lot of money into it. What if it fails? Do we go back to the Privy Council?” Baker questioned.

He contended that while the CCJ may be the best option, he was worried of the possibility of a collapse.

Justice Wit responded with the example of the Court of Chancery and the motion by the then British Government to bring an end to the court, which proved unsuccessful because no other suitable system could be found to replace the Court of Chancery.

So, too, Wit said, he believed the CCJ would survive in the region.

He said that he agreed with the arguments raised by Williams, saying that he thought they were convincing arguments for the remaining 11 CARICOM members to sign on to the CCJ.

Wit provided the answers to questions which continued to cast doubt; questions such as would the CCJ collapse should the region’s governments stop paying their contributions? Are the judges good enough and independent? And why should the other Heads of Governments follow what Barbados, Guyana and Belize have done and make the CCJ its final appellate court?

According to Justice Wit, the court is funded by the proceeds from the $100 million trust fund which the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) borrowed.

“The misconception is that once the money is used it’s done,” Wit explained, adding that the money is managed by a board of trustees whose primary objective is to keep the fund alive.

The issue relating to the judges’ competence and how they are selected, Wit contended that the judges selected were the best in the region and reassured the audience that their selection is not politically influenced.

Furthermore, Wit contended that should countries like St Vincent decide to accept the CCJ as its appellate jurisdiction, it would not have to pay more than what it currently pays.

“You are paying for something you do not use,” he said.

In fact, the judges are selected by the Regional Judicial and Legal Services Commission which comprises the President who shall be the Chairman of the Commission; two persons nominated jointly by the Organization of the Commonwealth Caribbean Bar Association (OCCBA) and the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) Bar Association; one chairman of the Judicial Services Commission of a Contracting Party selected in rotation in the English alphabetical order for a period of three years; the Chairman of a Public Service Commission of a Contracting Party selected in rotation in the reverse English alphabetical order for a period of three years; two persons from civil society nominated jointly by the Secretary General of the Community and the Director General of the OECS for a period of three years following consultations with regional nongovernmental organizations; two distinguished jurists nominated jointly by the Dean of the Faculty of Law of the University of the West Indies, the Deans of the Faculties of Law of any of the Contracting Parties and the Chairman of the Council of Legal Education; and two persons nominated jointly by the Bar or Law Associations of the Contracting Parties.

Fifty-three per cent of judgments were reversed at the level of the Privy Council coming from the Appeal Courts of Trinidad and Jamaica between 2004 and 2009; this in comparison to fifty-five per cent of those out of the courts in the United Kingdom, which Wit said also indicated the competence of the judges from around the region.

He ended by saying that the region needed to have its own appellate jurisdiction to be able to access it more frequently so that the region’s judicial system can be enhanced. (DD)