Former Prime Minister Sir James Mitchell says that St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) should maintain the London-based Privy Council as its highest court.
“I would say that in the light of the verdict of the people, this should not be tampered with,” he said on Boom FM last week.
Sir James, who led SVG for 16 years ending October 2002, was referring to the 2009 referendum in which the electorate rejected ditching the Privy Council — among other proposed changes to the Constitution.
“It (Privy Council) should be left alone… the status of our court should remain and should only be removed as the Constitution provides for: a two-thirds majority in the Parliament and a two-thirds majority from the people of St. Vincent,” Sir James said.
He further insisted that the main opposition New Democratic Party, which he founded, maintain a policy of keeping the Privy Council as the nation’s highest court.
Sir James comments last Friday came amidst allegations by opposition lawmakers that the Ralph Gonsalves-led Unity Labour Party could use a bill introduced in Parliament the previous day, as a backdoor way of replacing the Privy Council, without a referendum.
However, Gonsalves, who tabled the proposed law, has said that this is neither the intention nor will be the effect of the Attorney General’s Reference (Constitutional Questions) Bill, 2018, the debate on which will continue in Parliament on May 24.
Sir James cited his own experience, where the Privy Council ruled in his favour in the Ottley Hall Commission of Inquiry matter.
Sir James won at the Privy Council when it ruled that the commissioner had shown bias in his conclusion in the probe in which the former prime minister did not testify.
“The commission of inquiry never saw me, never heard me… And, moreover, the Privy Council was alarmed when the government enacted legislation to say I was not entitled to cost,” Sir James said.
The multi-million dollar commission has ended without any conclusion on whether there was any wrongdoing in the construction of the Ottley Hall Marina under the Mitchell administration, as the ULP had alleged.
Sir James had maintained that he and his government did nothing wrong.
He told listeners that, thankfully, he about to fight the legal challenge all the way to the Privy Council.
“… I am in the hole over $520,000 still,” he, however, said. I had to make a compromise judgment for us to get some money in settlement of my charges.
“I will say to my friend, Ralph, and his entire group, his tribe: get it straight, justice is more important than us.
“The quality of life is related to justice, the quality of life in this country has to be related to our democracy and when you have a democratic verdict by the people, why are you going to sneak behind the people and try — what is the agenda?
“This is a serious matter. This should not be left alone, because if the government succeeds in abolishing appeals to the Privy Council, no government getting in can do it again, … and say you want to come back [to the Privy Council]. This is final.
“Bear in mind always, you cannot legislate against government in the future. But this is one that you can legislate against a government in the future because once you go in this direction, there is no coming back.
“We need investors and we need serious investors in this country and it is a matter of their concern. Don’t tell me it doesn’t matter in other parts of the Caribbean. We are in our position and we need to solve our own situation and, in my view, with all due respect, to the intellectuals and the bright people in the ULP government, they have no moral authority to tamper with the judicial process.”
Amidst the allegation, Sir James questioned the government’s intention.
“Why attempt to change it? What is the government’s agenda? What is he trying to do? Why do they want to abolish the Privy Council? Do they have [the] moral authority to do so, bearing in mind that the people of St. Vincent rejected it?”
Sir James said that during the 2009 referendum campaign, maintaining appeals to the Privy Council was the strongest point that he and his party made.
“And it was one of the things that motivated me and that motivated every property owner in St. Vincent and that is why there was a distinction even in the political result between a referendum and the consistency general election.
“This is dangerous stuff I would invite the government to rethink, I would invite them to leave well alone, I would like to know why they are [contemplating] it now …
“… no political party — and I insist that the party I formed maintain a policy as long as the party exists not to abolish to the privy Council to go to the Caribbean Court of justice.”
Sir James said it is not that he does not trust West Indian jurists.
“We have the talent, we have the ability. That is not the argument. Why did I have to go before five judges in the Privy Council to get justice?” he said, noting that one of his daughters is a lawyer.
Sir James reiterated the position of the people, as expressed in the referendum vote.
“So you want to tell me that the people of St. Vincent said ‘No’ and you are going behind their backs to go in a different direction?
“It shows you have no respect for the people; no respect for the people’s capacity to think. If you want to do it, let the people think again. Let the people pass a verdict again.
“Don’t be scared of the verdict of the people of St. Vincent. You love the verdict when the people vote for you and you get success. Come on. Love the verdict when they say no also. This is what democracy is all about and time is there,” he said.