The move to the CCJ as the final criminal court, which would require a special majority in the Parliament, yesterday looked set for a clear path toward implementation after Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley and senior members of the Independent benches of the Senate indicated their support in principle. The Government needs Opposition and Independent bench support in order to pass special majority legislation.
In a special statement in the House of Representatives yesterday afternoon, the Prime Minister expressed “immeasurable pride” at the move towards the CCJ but was careful to point out that the country would still maintain the civil jurisdiction of the Privy Council in a move to preserve investor confidence in the system of commercial litigation.
“In this year as we celebrate our 50th anniversary of independence this year, the time has surely come for us to review our relationship with the Privy Council,” Persad-Bissessar said.
“I am pleased to announce that the Government will be bringing legislation to this Honourable House to secure the abolition of appeals to the Privy Council in all criminal matters so that this jurisdiction would then be ceded to the Caribbean Court of Justice,” she told MPs gathered at the International Waterfront Centre, Wrightson Road, Port-of-Spain.
“As a measure of our growing confidence in the CCJ, and as a mature and leading world democracy, in this year of our 50th independence anniversary, we will table legislation acceding to the criminal appellate jurisdiction of the CCJ.
“It is almost axiomatic that the Caribbean Community should have its own final Court of Appeal in all matters; that the West Indies at the highest level of jurisprudence should be West Indian,” she said.
“On personal note, Mr Speaker as a graduate of both the renowned Faculty of Law of the University of the West Indies and the prestigious Hugh Wooding Law School, it gives me immeasurable pride as Head of Government to usher in this new dawn in the legal history of our great nation, Trinidad and Tobago.”
The announcement came just over seven years after the CCJ was inaugurated at a ceremony at Queen’s Hall, Port-of-Spain and just over eleven years after an agreement to first establish the court was signed.
The announcement was welcomed by Acting Chief Justice Wendell Kangaloo, who called it “a major step towards finally creating a regional jurisprudence.”
The former President of the Caribbean Court of Justice, Justice Michael de la Bastide, and former Chief Justice Satnarine Sharma also welcomed the move.
President of the Law Association Dana Seetahal SC called the move “long overdue”, whilst the President of the Criminal Bar Association Pamela Elder SC said the legislation would result in greater accessibility to the courts and to improvements within the criminal justice system.
The Prime Minister, who has in the past warned against abolition of the Privy Council (which she has viewed as a safeguard), framed her announcement as part of what could be a gradual movement toward full abolition.
“It is perhaps fitting as we gear ourselves to celebrate what is essentially our golden anniversary of independence that we take another step in the furtherance of our national sovereignty now giving the Caribbean Court of Justice jurisdiction as our final Court of Appeal,” she said. She made clear that the move away from the Privy Council, which is formerly called the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, was not only part of a gradual move toward true sovereignty, but also a response to the need for reform of the criminal justice system amid high levels of crime.
“The prevailing and sustained analysis has suggested that the jurisdiction of Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in relation to criminal appeals is a matter of grave concern as it affects the dispensation of criminal justice at a time of high crime in our country,” she said.
Tellingly, the Prime Minister alluded to the “complication” of the fact that the London-based Privy Council’s jurisprudence has for years blocked the implementation of capital punishment.
“The situation has been complicated by the issue of the death penalty on which the Privy Council, reflecting contemporary English and European Union mores and jurisprudence has been rigorous in upholding Caribbean appeals in death sentence cases,” Persad-Bissessar said.
In the same breath, she added, “It may have always been in the contemplation of the founding fathers that as our democracy grew from strength to strength and our Judiciary developed its confidence and expertise that the time would come when we would have to take responsibility ourselves for the final adjudication of our disputes consonant with the pristine principles of justice and fair play and say goodbye to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council as our final Court of Appeal.”
Legal luminaries yesterday say the move toward the CCJ could, in theory, clear the way for the resumption of hangings if the matter were to now be determined afresh by a local supreme court.
Persad-Bissessar said the State would abolish the criminal jurisdiction but would not yet abolish the civil jurisdiction of the UK court, consistent with a cautionary approach.
“The international and global nature of complex and varied legal cases before the Privy Council can only aid and assist the development of jurisprudence in the Caribbean which in my view is to be welcomed and we should be slow to cut off all ties with that august body,” she said.
“The Privy Council has an international reputation as being one of the finest commercial and civil law courts in the world. It inspires confidence in foreign investors and its retention in this regard is conducive to an investor-friendly climate at a time when the international economic order is changing and Trinidad and Tobago is attempting to woo foreign investment from Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.”
She continued, “consistent with our approach of caution and gradualism, this country has not rushed to surrender the jurisdiction of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council but has rather kept the issue under constant review. As is well known, Trinidad and Tobago has maintained for the time being its policy of the Privy Council being its final appellate court, as it saw no good or plausible reason in 2005 to replace the Privy Council with the CCJ until that court had established over time, the body and quality of its jurisprudence.”
“Our experience over the years has repaid our caution and gradualism in treating with this question,” she said. “Our leaders who ushered us into our independent status, in their wisdom, recognised that a number of the institutions which formed part of our national endeavour ought not to be erased with a stroke of a pen but be preserved even if transitionally.”
She said the CCJ issue came up at the last Caricom heads of Government summit at Suriname.
The Prime Minister said the State would keep an eye on the CCJ under its new mandate.
“We will continue to monitor the developments taking place in both the Privy Council and CCJ including the quality of their decisions in deciding the future course of our judicial system,” she said. “In so doing my Government affirms its commitment to deepening of the regional integration process and the development of a Caribbean jurisprudence and we view this step as a manifestation of that commitment.”
“Mr Speaker, by our commitment today, the Government of the People’s Partnership signals a most historic development in the administration of justice in independent Trinidad and Tobago.
These pledges to strengthen our democracy form the core value in the manifesto of the People’s Partnership. Today we deliver yet again on a promise to generations to come,” the Prime Minister said.
ABOUT THE CCJ
There are 12 signatories to the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ). The agreement establishing the CCJ was signed by Antigua & Barbuda, Barbados, Belize, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, St Kitts & Nevis, St Lucia, Suriname and Trinidad & Tobago on Valentine’s Day, 2001. In 2003, Dominica and St Vincent & the Grenadines joined.
On 16 April 2005, the CCJ was inaugurated at a ceremony at Queen’s Hall in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. In 1999, then Prime Minister Basdeo Panday had announced that this country would host the headquarters of the CCJ. The court was first housed at the Winsure Building on Richmond Street, Port-of-Spain. It is now housed in its own complex on Henry Street, Port-of-Spain.
The CCJ has two jurisdictions: an original and an appellate jurisdiction. In its original jurisdiction, it interprets and applies the Treaty of Chaguaramas which established the Caribbean Community (Caricom). In its appellate jurisdiction, it hears appeals in both civil and criminal matters from those member states which have signed on to this aspect of the court.
At present, Barbados, Belize, and Guyana are the only signatories signed on to both jurisdictions. This country would be the first country to recognise the appellate jurisdiction for criminal matters alone and not civil matters.