ST. VINCENT: – A senior lawyer for the main opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) has defended the judiciary in the eight-member Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) amidst insinuation of political interference.
“I will not sit here and have aspersions cast on the judiciary of the OECS at all. We have a judiciary of the highest standard of quality and integrity as you will find anywhere in the world. So, let us put that to rest,” Bertram Commissiong QC said on Wednesday, Dec. 1.
Commissiong was responding during an NDP press conference to comments by freelance journalist Dave Roberts, who was reacting to statement by the lawyer regarding alleged illegal voter registration in the lead up to the Dec. 13 general elections.
The lawyer had said that the EC$750 (US$278) and six months in imprisonment penalty for election offences “may appear slight”.
He, however, said that he believes that supporters of the ruling Unity Labour Party (ULP) allegedly involved in illegal registration, were being promised immunity from prosecution should the party be returned to office.
“…I dare to go even further and say they might even say even if you are prosecuted privately … we will nolle prosequi it, as has been done in the past. I think that is what is being held out and emboldening people and encouraging them to commit these kinds of offences,” Commissiong said.
“You said something a while ago that frightens me,” Roberts said later in response to the lawyer’s statement.
“It appears if what you say turns out to be correct … then it tells me something — our judiciary, our judicial system is not of any, what — significance or any meaning? I am frightened about that…” Roberts added.
“You didn’t listen to me or you didn’t hear what I said,” Commissiong responded, as he restated his opinion on the alleged illegal voter registration.
He further said that alleged illegal voters might be promised that “if any prosecution may have been brought against them — private prosecution by the NDP — that they will be nolle prosequi as we have seen in the past”.
“…the only functionary in St. Vincent, under our Constitution who can take over and discontinue prosecution … is the Director of Public Prosecution. And, if he feels, in his own deliberate judgement, after looking at the situation, that he wants to discontinue those cases, he can do so and nobody can question him.
“… That is because the office of the DPP is protected under the Constitution because it was intended when the Constitution was established that he would be a person completely disassociated from any government, from any political party. He is supposed to be pristine. Unfortunately, sometimes it doesn’t happen that way.”
Commissiong said that while the judiciary is often accused of not functioning independently, “a judge has absolute security of tenure”.
“He cannot be sacked, he cannot be removed from office unless a complaint is made against him by the prime minister and then through the chief justice, who will establish a tribunal to investigate what this misconduct is. And, he has recourse. He can appeal,” Commissiong said.
Commissiong cited the case of Justice Richard Crane in Trinidad who was reinstated after he appealed to the Privy Council in England.
“So, a judge does not have to pander to any prime minister or any government at all because he is secured. He will not lose his job and they know that. If, the public perceives that judges behave in a particular way, it is out of their own weakness and not out of any fear of being interfered with by the prime minister.
“They cannot be interfered with. I know that in Guyana Forbes Burnham use to deny then chauffeurs or … security forces and what have you but we don’t have that here. Our judges are very well protected, very well secured,” Commissiong said.
“If the judiciary is under threat, it is of their own making,” he added.