ST. VINCENT (Jan. 14):- Lawyers for the main opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) want the High Court to overturn the decision by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Colin Williams, to take over and discontinue six private criminal complaints against three government ministers.
They also want the High Court to rule that Chief Magistrate Sonia Young summon Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves to appear in court to answer two similar charges.
The complaints were brought under the Representation of the People’s Act by three NDP candidates in last month’s elections in relation to “different character assassinations” during the election campaign.
The ULP won the elections by a single seat. If found guilty, the ministers could have been fined and imprisoned in addition to being barred from voting, contesting elections or being a Member of Parliament for five years.
The Chief Magistrate on Tuesday dismissed as “frivolous and vexatious” two charges against Gonsalves and a further two against Housing Minister Clayton Burgin.
She, however, summoned Burgin to appear in court on Friday, Jan. 14, to answer two charges brought against him by NDP Chairman and candidate for East St. George, Dr. Linton Lewis.
Foreign Affairs Minister and immediate past representative for South Leeward, Sen. Dr. Douglas Slater, was summoned to answer two complaints against him by area representative, Nigel Stevenson.
Further, Member of Parliament for West St. George, Cecil McKie, was ordered to appear in court to answer two charges brought by the NDP Public Relations Officer, Vynnette Frederick, who he defeated in that constituency.
However, the DPP took over and discontinued the six cases, much to the ire of the NDP’s legal team, which comprised Vincentians Kay Bacchus-Browne and Nicole Sylvester and Trinidadian Keith Scotland.
Sylvester said at a press conference on Friday, Jan. 14, that her team does not agree with the Chief Magistrate not issuing summons for the Prime Minister to appear in court.
She however said that the magistrate felt that in relation to the other three ministers “that there were issues to be determined, which were issues as to whether an illegal practice occurred”.
She said the Chief Magistrate “exercised her judicial discretion without fear or favour and in her own judicial exercise of that discretion felt there was a prima facie case to be answered” by Slater, Burgin, and McKie.
The lawyer said that the Chief Magistrate “brings with her a wealth of experience” and has worked in Montserrat and the British Virgin Islands.
She, however, said the DPP is a former Public Relations Officer of Gonsalves’ ruling Unity Labour Party (ULP) and was also a junior practitioner in the Prime Minister’s law firm.
The ULP appointed the DPP amidst much protest by the legal fraternity regarding his ability to be or appear to be impartial in the exercise of his duties.
“Who is well-placed to make the decision? Is it the Chief Magistrate, who is independent or the learned Director of Public Prosecution, with the background. …justice must not only be done; it must manifestly appear to be done. And perhaps if we had a DPP who hadn’t been PRO of the Labour Party and who wasn’t an associate of Ralph E. Gonsalves’ chambers, we probably would have felt okay,” Sylvester said.
She further said that the DPP did not contact the claimants or their witnesses before striking out the case.
“He has a history of discontinuing matters when it relates to the honourable Prime Minister. He has become known for this, not only in St. Vincent – regionally and internationally with a great measure of outcry by his fellow directors of pubic prosecution,” Sylvester said.
“As a matter of fact, at a human right conference with judges, they were alarmed at such a thought and they thought, when the matter was raised, that we were giving an academic scenario. One had to show them the facts. They could not believe that at our stage of development that this could be real,” she said.
Under the laws of St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG), the DPP can, in his own deliberate judgement, take over and discontinue private criminal complaints and he is not obliged to explain his decision.
Sylvester further said that she has “immense difficulty” with and was “deeply concerned” about the DPP’s decision.
She said the decision puts the Chief Magistrate “in an invidious position” and suggests to the public that the Chief Magistrate made a wrong decision.
“If the matters are frivolous and vexatious, let them [go forward] and let the court say so. … That will give us all a sense of justice,” she said.
“This must have significant implications for the administration of justice and for the rule of law in our country. … And what I would say, be not afraid. Be not alarmed. We are certainly going to use every avenue that is open to us,” she added.
Meanwhile, lawyer Kay Bacchus-Browne said “our democracy is under threat and rule of law is on trial”.
She was “deeply disappointed with what is going on in our country today” and added that she has been involved in 14 private criminal cases filed in SVG, all of which the DPP has taken over and discontinued.
She said Frederick’s firm is involved in bringing disciplinary actions against the DPP “and that is one of the reasons why the DPP should not take over her matter”.
“How could you be impartial? How could you deal with a complainant, in Vynnette Frederick, when she herself and her father they are involved in bringing disciplinary proceedings against you yourself?”
Bacchus-Browne said that unlike in a previous case in which a police woman had accused Gonsalves of rape, she did give a statement to the DPP as requested.
“What is even more alarming is that the leader of the ULP, who is himself a lawyer, was on air yesterday and probably today, I am told, vilifying the two female lawyers (Sylvester and Bacchus-Browne) who have been standing up for democracy in this country. He has threatened us with legal action, penalties, misconduct. What is going on in our country?” she said.
Bacchus-Browne said that she would not be surprised if at the next sitting of Parliament private criminal complaints are removed from the law books.
“The law gives us right to challenge the DPP and his decision so the matter does not end there. We shall be taking steps to challenge the DPP’s decision to discontinue,” she further said.