May 15, 2018
Decision by some people to try to mislead public on Reference Bill is bizarre – PM

The Attorney General’s Reference (Constitutional Questions) Bill 2018 has nothing to do with changing aspects of the Constitution without a referendum, neither does it speak about getting rid of the Privy Council as the country’s final appeal destination.

And, Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves, has described as “bizarre,” the decision by some people to try to mislead the public into thinking that the Bill seeks to change the Constitution or remove the Privy Council.

The Bill is for an Act to provide for the referral to the Court of important questions of interpretation of the Constitution and the constitutionality of legislation enacted by Parliament.
The Prime Minister said the Bill allows questions submitted by the Attorney General in which the public has interest or are of public importance and allows for an interpretation by the Court of Appeal, nothing else.

“The Attorney General is not asking for any law to be made. It is for existing law to be interpreted and then that reference having been made to the Court, the Court shall hear and consider the reference, answer each question and certify to the Attorney General its opinion on each question with the reason for each answer,” explained Gonsalves, who is also Minister of Legal Affairs.
He noted that the opinion given by the Appeal Court is advisory and by that, the opinion of the court cannot take away from anyone, the right to go to the High Court and move the High Court through whatever mechanism in the law, to adjudicate on a particular matter.

“…The Court will give an opinion, but if somebody doesn’t think that this advisory opinion is very sound, they can go to the … High Court and raise the matter whether the interpretation which is provided by the Court of Appeal is the correct interpretation and it would go from the High Court to the Court of Appeal to the Privy Council so it does not take away the right of the Privy Council in adjudicating any matter,” he stressed reiterated.

He said the decision to bring the Bill was born out of the discussions in Parliament in January, 2018 when attempts by the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) to have Parliament debate a No Confidence Motion failed and it was agreed that a legal opinion on the interpretation of Section 47 of the Constitution be sought.
“Remember in that consideration I had made the suggestion to Jomo [Thomas, Speaker of the House] and to [Leader of the Opposition Godwin] Friday and both of them agreed that yes, we can do an Attorney General’s reference, but we need to pass the law,” said Gonsalves.

The Prime Minister said what he feels is the issue with the Bill is that the NDP thinks the Bill is being brought to question the eligibility to sit in Parliament of opposition leader Dr Godwin Friday, who holds dual citizenship with Canada.

“Let us say we put that question. It does not mean that the person who is sitting in the House, and the Court gives an advisory opinion which is against his interest, it does not mean that person has to leave the Parliament. Somebody would have to go and move the Court and it would go all the way up to the Privy Council,” said Gonsalves.
He said the Bill allows the Court the power to direct any person interested in the matter on which they are seeking the advisory opinion to be given notice of the hearing so that those persons would be entitled to be heard either directly or acting through a lawyer.

The Prime Minister said the Bill also gives the Court the power to appoint a lawyer to argue the case in respect of the person bringing the case.
“The court has the power to direct the government to pay for that lawyer. All that is in the Bill and the Bill makes it plain, the provisions of this Act do not derogate from the powers of the Court under any other enactment.
“It doesn’t take away any powers which the Court of Appeal has on any matter. In other words, the Court of Appeal still has it full range of powers,” noted Gonsalves who added that restrictions only come if someone asks the court to give an opinion and the court says it is a matter on which it has adjudicated on before.

Gonsalves said when passed, the expectation is that questions will be asked in relation to the issue raised earlier this year with the No Confidence Motion and possibly on politicians holding dual citizenship.

When contacted, Member of Parliament for Central Kingstown St Clair Leacock, who was deputizing for Leader of the Opposition Dr Godwin Friday, said he had no comment to make on the issue outside Parliament as yet.

“I will not make any comments on that until after the debate, I don’t want to be too previous. I need to listen to the debate presented to make an intelligent response, so when the government presents, I will be informed, and I will make a decision on an informed presentation.

“I think we have reasons to have reservations that’s why I ask … to have a debate presented,” said Leacock.