The main opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) says it will campaign against any effort “at this point in time” to make the Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) the island’s highest court, replacing the London-based Privy Council.
Opposition Leader and NDP President, Dr. Godwin Friday, told a news conference here that issues which were raised when the population rejected the measure in a referendum in 2009, were still relevant.
“A lot of the issues that we raised about people’s confidence in the judicial system, they have made their positions known, those situations have not been addressed,” said Friday, who is also an attorney.
He told reporters that he has heard comments made about the judicial system that ought not to be made.
“That doesn’t inspire confidence in the judicial system and when people hear this, they come to us to seek our assurance — not our advice, very often, our assurance — to say, ‘Listen, we have made up our minds on this question.’
“And we will have discussions back and forth about the pros and the cons and so on and maybe at some point they would be persuaded that this is the direction in which they should go.
“But, at this point in time, that is not my view of how the thing is, how people are feeling, and we will maintain our position,” he said, dismissing suggestions that corruption within the judiciary may be at the heart of the party’s decision.
“That has nothing to do with corruption. And I certainly would not subscribe to that view,” he added.
Last month, Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves said he is prepared to go to Parliament to change the Constitution to allow for the island to join the CCJ even as he acknowledged he would need the support of the NDP.
Addressing a ceremonial sitting of the CCJ to celebrate St. Vincent-born jurist, Justice Adrian Saunders’ elevation to the office of CCJ president, Gonsalves said it has been determined that a referendum was not a requirement, and all that was needed was a two-thirds majority in Parliament to support the change in the Constitution that would make the move a reality.
Gonsalves’ Unity Labour Party (ULP) has eight of the 15 seats in Parliament, with the NDP holding the other seven. At least 10 votes in favour of the constitutional change would be required.
“I don’t want to ambush him (Friday)…But if they [the Opposition] are of the mind to join the government in passing a constitutional amendment to have the CCJ, I will find time on the Parliamentary agenda,” Gonsalves said.
I am not fearful of going to the Parliament…We can have a free vote and see whether we have the majority. For my part, I have no desire to linger, to loiter on colonial premises beyond closing time,” he added.
But opposition legislator, Kay Bacchus-Baptiste, who is also a lawyer, said that she disagrees with Prime Minister Gonsalves that a referendum is not needed to replace the Privy Council with the CCJ.
Gonsalves, an attorney, said he has come to that conclusion based on an opinion of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court, in response to a question from the attorney general in St. Lucia.
He said that the opinion meant that only a two-thirds majority of Members of Parliament is needed to make the change.
“That is not my position,” Bacchus-Baptiste said, adding that the Ccourt had did not have a unanimous view on the issue.
“I subscribe to the opinion of the dissenting judge, which was very, very well done, that a referendum is still required. I think that is the feeling in the other Caribbean islands, certainly in Jamaica that a referendum would be required.
“So, it is not automatic to believe, as Dr. Gonsalves is saying, that a referendum is no longer required — just a two-thirds majority in the house. That issue is still to be tested,” she added.
The CCJ, which was established in 2001, has an Original and Appellate jurisdiction. But while the majority of Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries are signatories to the Original jurisdiction, only Barbados, Dominica, Belize and Guyana have signed on to the Court’s Appellate jurisdiction.
The CCJ also serves as an international tribunal interpreting the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas that governs the regional integration movement.