Opposition senator, Kay Bacchus-Baptiste says her New Democratic Party (NDP) and the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines are at one on the topic of replacing the London-based Privy Council with the Port of Spain-headquartered Caribbean Court of Justice as SVG’s highest court.
“I think our party’s position is clear. Our party’s position is the people’s position, which is, we did not consent at that time to having the CCJ as our final court of appeal,” she said.
She was referring to the nation’s rejection in 2009 of the switch to the CCJ among other proposed changes to the nation’s Constitution.
The debate had been reinvigorated with the ascension of Vincentian judge, Justice Adrian Saunders to the presidency of the CCJ.
Among activities across the region to mark Saunders’ elevation was a ceremonial sitting of the CCJ in Kingstown last Friday.
Speaking on Boom FM on Monday, Bacchus-Baptiste, a lawyer who became a senator late last year, said:
“Let me make that clear. This has absolutely nothing to do with the scholarship of the judges, our Caribbean justices. We do not have a problem like that. But the people of St. Vincent, and of the OECS — only Dominica has joined the CCJ in its appellate jurisdiction; the rest of the OECS has not.
“And we cannot just ignore the feelings of the people. It is a valid feeling that politicians would interfere on a court where they are so close and they know the judges. That is the feeling of the people, whether ULP wants to admit it or not.
“This is not just common to St. Vincent or unique to St. Vincent. It is throughout the OECS and Jamaica, including Trinidad, where the very court sits. So, we have to ask ourselves, how valid is that feeling of the people, which was overwhelmingly demonstrated when that constitution was not accepted.”
Bacchus-Baptiste spoke at Friday’s ceremonial sitting. She used the opportunity to pay tribute to Saunders as a personal and longstanding friend and did not comment on the Privy-Council CCJ debate.
However, in his comments at the event, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, whose government led the constitutional reform effort, spoke frontally about the Privy Council-CCJ debate at Friday’s event.
He noted a post-referendum ruling of the Eastern Caribbean Court of Appeal in St. Lucia, interpreted to mean that a two-third majority of Members of Parliament, rather than a two-thirds majority in a referendum is needed to switch from the Privy Council to the CCJ.
In her response on radio, Bacchus-Baptiste said her feeling is that if Gonsalves is so willing to change to the CCJ, he should demit office, which she said he is holding illegally, and her party would pass the law.
“Call fresh elections. The NDP would pass it because you know something? The fear is not that the NDP would interfere, you know. We are known as a party, which is democratic, we are known for that. The democracy in New Democratic Party is real.
“We are not known for interfering in the administration of justice. We are not known at all, so the fear of the Vincentian populace, the fear of the people of the OECS is that politicians would interfere.”
Bacchus-Baptiste rejected the view that a referendum is not needed to replace the Privy Council.
“In fact, I am still holding that it requires a referendum of the people. It requires a referendum and then two-thirds majority and many of us believe that because we do not accept the attorney general’s reference decision that was passed in St. Lucia, that it doesn’t require a referendum and that is another whole legal argument.”
The senator called on the prime minister to address “the very real, perceived belief of the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines that there will be interference, not in every decision, only in that one or two decisions that is important politically”.
Bacchus-Baptiste said that the NDP believes that in switching to the CCJ it would be “going against the will of the people, the clearly expressed will of the people. We are a democratic party.
“Listen, my heart pains. I really want a government who will not interfere; I want to see the CCJ, especially now that a son of the soil leads it. I want that because they are brilliant judges and they have given brilliant decisions so far. It is a travesty that in this region our people so do not trust the politicians that we cannot break from the Privy Council.”
Bacchus-Baptiste said she did not make these points on Friday because she did not think that was the time or place nor did she go there “for political reasons”.
“I came there to pay tribute to Adrian as I have done. I had a prepared speech, I was asked to speak for three minutes…
“And my purpose then was to pay tribute. I was not there to play politics and to decry why and expose, which I think might have been an embarrassment, the reason why persons in St. Vincent don’t trust going to the CCJ, then it would have turned into a whole political debate, which I did not think was proper.
“I didn’t think that was the venue. I was in a court of law, a ceremonial sitting of the court of law and I came there just to pay tribute to my friend, Adrian Saunders.”