By Peter Richards PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, April 25, CMC – The Trinidad and Tobago government Wednesday announced that it would introduce legislation to replace the London-based Privy Council as the island’s final court of appeal.
“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.
“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,” Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar said.
Trinidad and Tobago, like most of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries are signatories to the original jurisdiction of the Port of Spain-based Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) that was established by regional countries in 2001 to replace the Privy Council.
Only Barbados, Guyana and Belize are members of the appellate jurisdiction of the CCJ that also acts as an international tribunal interpreting the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas that governs the regional integration movement.
Persad-Bissessar told legislators that she was looking forward to bi-partisan support when the legislation is brought to Parliament since it would require a special majority.
“I am very pleased to announce that my government will be bringing legislation to this honourable House to secure the abolishing of appeals to the Privy Council in all criminal matters so this jurisdiction would then be ceded to the Caribbean Court of Justice,” she said.
Prime Minister Persad Bissessar said that as a measure of her administration’s growing confidence in the CCJ “and as a mature and leading world democracy in this year of our 50thindependence anniversary, we will table legislation acceding the criminal appellate jurisdiction of the Caribbean Court of Justice in very much the same way as some other countries have done…”
She said there is amply precedence for a phased withdrawal from the Privy Council, adding that she has since held discussions with various stakeholders here including the Chief Justice Ivor Archie and the President of the Law Association Dana Seetahal and the Criminal Bar Association, Pamela Elder.
In her statement, Prime Minister Persad Bissessar defended Trinidad and Tobago’s decision to adopt a deliberate approach to breaking ties with the Privy Council.
“It was no doubt thought that given our common law heritage that the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council had the expertise and objectivity to continue to adjudicate on matters from this jurisdiction and this was regarded as valuable for our fledgling independent democracy.
“Moreover, the same would also serve during our early independent years to nourish and fortify our democracy,” she said, adding that Trinidad and Tobago has functioned within the framework of a unitary state regulated by a parliamentary democracy modelled on that of the United Kingdom from which country we gained independence in 1962.
She said over the years, there has been national and regional dialogue about the retention of the Privy Council, with some arguing that Trinidad and Tobago should follow other Commonwealth countries like India, Australia, Canada, Malaysia, Pakistan and New Zealand but to name a few.
“Time and again, we have heard comments to the effect that the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) is out of sync with the times and our independence and should be replaced with a regional court of last resort,” she said, adding “our experience over the years has repaid our caution and gradualism in treating with this question”.
She said the Trinidad and Tobago government under Prime Minister Basdeo Panday had announced in 1999 that it would provide a site to house the court and in 2001, the agreement establishing the CCJ was signed by Antigua & Barbuda, Barbados, Belize, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, St Kitts & Nevis, St Lucia, Suriname and Trinidad & Tobago to be followed in 2003 by Dominica and St Vincent & the Grenadines.
She said the CCJ was established at a time when the Caribbean Community sought to forge its own body of jurisprudence and reinforce its right to determine its affairs.
“The situation has been complicated by the issue of the death penalty on which the Privy Council, reflecting contemporary English (and EU) mores and jurisprudence has been rigorous in upholding Caribbean appeals in death sentence cases.
“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.”
But she noted that the “prevailing and sustained analysis has suggested that the jurisdiction of JCPC 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.
“The Caribbean Court of Justice remains committed in pursuing its enlightened role in Caribbean legal reform in the important area of the criminal law,” she said, adding “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.
“A century old tradition of erudition and excellence in the legal profession of the Region leaves no room for hesitancy in our Caribbean region.”
Earlier this month, CCJ President, Sir Dennis Byron said regional countries should “complete their independence and sovereignty by claiming the rights to completely manage our judicial affairs”.
Sir Dennis as well as CCJ judges Adrian Dudley Saunders and Jacob Wit also noted that Port of Spain is bound by international law to accede to the final appellate of the court noting that the twin island republic did not enter any reservation that it would not be bound by the commitment to accede to the appellate jurisdiction of the CCJ as had been the case with Suriname, Grenada, Antigua and Barbuda and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, whose Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves had personally written his island’s position on the document.