The month of July 2018 is perhaps the most eventful in the history of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) since its inception, where regional publicity is concerned.
It has been marked by the passing of its Presidency to a wholly Caribbean-trained jurist, his inauguration immediately preceding the annual CARICOM Heads of Government Conference and special sittings of the Court, including one in the land of birth of the new President, Hon. Justice Adrian Saunders.
The result is that the profile of the CCJ has been given a boost and focus has once more been placed on the need to get all the member countries to accede to the Court in its full jurisdiction.
Nearly a decade and a half after the CCJ came into being, only four countries have been bold enough to abandon their colonial trappings in the fold of the British Privy Council and claim their right to have our own CCJ be their highest appellate body.
Year after year, at almost every gathering of our political leaders, there are platitudes and vague commitments to sever the Privy Council chord, but deeds have yet to match those words. Even this year, at the swearing-in of Justice Saunders in front of CARICOM Heads, the sound-bites were in order. Once again though, disappointment was soon to follow. Right at the conclusion of the Conference, two prime ministers, while reiterating their commitment to accede to the CCJ in full out of one corner of the mouth, both made it clear that it was “no priority” for them now.
So, what are the citizens of the Caribbean Community to do now? Our leaders have set up a Court, extolled its virtues, but when it comes to the final leap, they balk. It opens the space for all sorts of justifications to keep the Privy Council with political opportunism and downright colonial backwardness in the forefront. The argument is made that only the Privy Council can guarantee justice since any Court of ours will be open to political manipulation. A greater insult to the integrity of our own judges will be hard to imagine.
The reality is that, as Justice Saunders so lucidly explained last Friday, the retention of the Privy Council is nothing but an insistence on privilege, and a denial of easy access to justice for the vast majority of citizens who cannot afford it. This is how he explained it:
“It is an issue of affording the ordinary man and woman the same level of access to the highest level of justice as is currently enjoyed by those who are well-off.”
The new CCJ President backed up this assertion with facts. He pointed out that over the past 30 years, the Eastern Caribbean Court of Appeal has heard approximately 1,800 appeals from SVG. Of these, only 21 have been appealed further to the Privy Council, nine of them involving death penalty appeals for which legal aid is available. Thus access to the Privy Council was afforded in only 12 cases, the cost factor being the determining one. It is expensive for private individuals to reach before the Privy Council and only those who can afford it, get this privilege. Interestingly, among those who campaign for the retention of the Privy Council are some prominent citizens who have had the resources to get access to it.
There are even those who falsely argue that the CCJ is a “lazy court”. Again, this charge flies in the face of reality. This year alone the Privy Council has handed down 11 judgements from Commonwealth Caribbean countries which still adhere to it. The CCJ by contrast has rendered judgement in double that number of cases, and that is outside the two most populous countries of Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago.
It is time for us to debunk the myths about the quality of justice dispensed by our own jurists. They are as good as any. If we are so convinced then it is important that the citizens of those countries still outside the appellate jurisdiction of the CCJ to play a leading role in pressuring our governments to take the final plunge. In all but one or two cases, no referendum is legally required to take the step since a two-thirds majority in Parliament is all that is required.
However our politicians continue to play `footsie’ with it. The referendum of 2009 brought out all sorts of nonsensical arguments which have little factual bearing. We must try to keep the CCJ access decision out of partisan politics. It is a matter of justice for those who cannot afford to reach the courts of the British law lords. We must convince the Government that it must avoid any misconception of placing the backs of the Opposition against the wall, and in turn convince the Opposition that if need be, all that is required is to remove the partisan whip and let Parliamentarians vote according to conscience.
We in SVG in particular have additional reasons, in that not only is one Vincentian President of the CCJ, but another, Mr Linton Lewis, is Chairman of the CCJ’s Trust Fund, set up to guarantee funding of the Court. We as citizens must step forward boldly.
RAISE YOUR HAND LIKE ME.
Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.