Just like a recurring nightmare, the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) debate continues to haunt the lives of the former British Caribbean territories.
The latest comments to make the news were those of Dr Ralph Gonsalves, prime minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines, who recently told Caribbean Media Corporation that there was no attempt being made to get the court approved through the “back door.”
We assume Prime Minister Gonsalves was referring to recent moves by St Lucia to ask the Eastern Caribbean Court of Appeal for an opinion on how to proceed, because of uncertainty about whether a referendum is needed to allow the changes contemplated. Apparently, the language of a much used Constitutional clause is not good enough for the St Lucian government.
We should first congratulate Dr Gonsalves for his scrupulous compliance with the Constitution of his country by calling a referendum on the issue and gracefully accepting the decision of the people to turn it down. He has, however, diluted his actions by tacit approval of the St Lucia move.
At the moment, only the governments of Barbados, Belize and Guyana have accepted the court as a replacement for the Judicial Committee of Britain’s Privy Council, which has been our final appeal in criminal and legal matters up until now. Most of the other islands require a referendum first or at least a two-thirds majority vote in the House of Representatives, according to our understanding of the various Constitutions.
In the case of Antigua & Barbuda we require both a referendum and a majority vote in the house.
Here, at The Daily OBSERVER, we have consistently objected to any change which we feel will result in a diminished level of jurisprudence available to the institutions and people of our country. We do not object to a Caribbean Court; we object to the apparent disregard for the quality of judgements by those pushing for us to accept the CCJ in its present incarnation.
This stand is not based on some whimsical longing for a return to colonial days but on personal and bitter experience at the hands of existing Caribbean courts. We are not against setting up a fully functional CCJ but we see no point in giving up a perfectly sound system to replace it with one that has no track record and promises no improvement.
Our political structure in the Caribbean is heavily influenced by the preponderance of lawyers in government, so it is probably not surprising that the politicians, in general, are pushing for the CCJ. It is only the good sense of our people which is standing in their way. If lawyers continue to be dominant, the CCJ, as envisioned, would, in our opinion, give politicians and lawyers a frightening grip on the lives of our citizens.
Yet, we need not make such heavy going of these issues. What we need to do is face up to the fact that our courts are poorly funded, seriously demoralised and abysmally managed. Once we tackle the problems forthrightly, and keep the politicians and lawyers from calling the shots, we might give the people of our country a system they can be proud of.
George Clemenceau, a 20th century French journalist, physician and statesman, is credited with the statement that war is too important to be left to the generals.
We at The Daily OBSERVER would like to lay claim to spreading the sentiment that the law is too important to be left to the politicians or lawyers.
The people must decide as their Constitution specifies. We think they can be won over to the establishment of a Caribbean Court of Justice if they felt they would be getting quality judicial decisions.
This matter is too important to take lightly and justify by saying that Britain is complaining about a disproportionate reliance on the Law Lords by the former colonies. It is one of those inconveniences that come with lingering empire and Britain will just have to grin and bear it. But we do see an acceptable solution for all parties.
Our advice would be to ask Her Majesty’s government to help in the overhaul of our entire judicial system, help set the requirements for an acceptable CCJ and when we would have achieved the required standards.
An arrangement like that would get our nod and, we dare say, the approval of our citizens. Anything less will continue to attract our disapproval.