The St. Vincent and the Grenadines Bar Association has given its blessing to the Attorney General’s Reference (Constitutional Questions) Bill, which was passed in Parliament on Thursday, amidst strong protest by opposition lawmakers.
Under the new law, the attorney general, with the approval of Cabinet, can ask the Court of Appeal to give a legal opinion on how some sections of the Constitution are to be interpreted.
The legal opinion, however, would be non-binding.
In wrapping up the debate Thursday night, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves told Parliament that he had received a letter from the president of the Bar Association confirming the group’s support for the law.
But opposition Senator, Kay Bacchus-Baptiste suggested that the Bar Association’s position was reached in untoward circumstances.
“They changed the venue,” she said in apparent reference to the venue where the meeting took place.
“One good thing is that the Bar Association came alive,” said Bacchus-Baptiste, a lawyer.
Gonsalves said that the only time something is right is when it accords with Bacchus-Baptiste’s opinion.
“In another area, they may call that self-righteousness. But that’s for a separate forum. That’s not from this forum,” he said.
Gonsalves, who is also Minister of Legal Affairs, went on to say that the Bar Association’s letter says that on May 4, the executive was presented with a draft of the law for circulation to all members of the association.
On May 15, a general meeting was convened for the primary purpose for giving all legal practitioners an opportunity to provide feedback and suggest possible amendments to the draft bill.
The members of the association were invited to the meeting via email.
At the meeting, there was a short presentation by Parnell Campbell QC and those present made their presentations on the issue and Kezron Walters of the Attorney General’s Chambers provided clarity on some points raised.
The letter said there were no major concerns about the draft bill save for a few minor typographical errors, which Walters indicated had been addressed.
There was some ambiguity identified at section 7, which states “and provided that which has not been instructed by an interested party”.
After the discussion, a vote was taken and a resolution passed that the Bar Association support the draft bill, the prime minister cited the letter as saying.
“But this correspondence, we wish to inform you of the above and to wish this draft bill safe passage through its various stages,” he further said, reading from the letter.
“Now, Mr. Speaker, the Christian Council wants it, the Bar Association says fine, the whole world says yes to it, including several in the Caribbean. The honourable leader of the opposition had agreed with me on May the third, along with the blessing, the benediction of the honourable speaker…” Gonsalves said of the law.
Among other things, Opposition Leader, Godwin Friday, asked why the opinions given by the court under the bill are not binding.
“I think that in the interest of avoiding doubt with respect to how the court may rule in a matter that the question, once determined, should be treated as a decision of the court, rather than an opinion of the court.”
He said that in so doing, litigants who may have a live matter before the court would know how the question is, rather than might, be determined.