The main opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) would campaign against any effort to replace the Privy Council with the Caribbean Court of Justice as St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ highest court at this time.
Leader of the Opposition and NDP president Godwin Friday made his party’s position clear when asked at a press conference in Kingstown last week.
Replacing the London-based Privy Council with the CCJ, which is based in Port-of-Spain, was among proposed changes to the Constitution, which Vincentian rejected in a referendum in 2009.
Commenting on that outcome, Friday said last week:
“A lot of the issues that we raised about people’s confidence in the judicial system, they have made their positions known, those situations have not been addressed.”
Friday, a lawyer, said he has heard comments made about the judicial system that ought not to be made.
“That doesn’t inspire confidence in the judicial system and when people hear this, they come to us to seek our assurance — not our advice, very often, our assurance — to say, ‘Listen, we have made up our minds on this question.’
“And we will have discussions back and forth about the pros and the cons and so on and maybe at some point they would be persuaded that this is the direction in which they should go.
“But, at this point in time, that is not my view of how the thing is, how people are feeling, and we will maintain our position.”
Asked if that is “a kinda subtle way of saying we have corruption in the judiciary, where we don’t trust the judges in the CCJ”, Friday said:
“You have taken your own words. I wouldn’t put it like that. Trust is based on — there are lots of things that affect people’s confidence one way or another. It doesn’t have to be corruption. [It could be] outcomes that may not be what they ought to be in their case or that they feel that just the way in which the closeness of our politicians are — the smallness of our society, I think that is the thing. “People from abroad have been sending me emails or WhatsApp messages saying it is so better to have this entity that is divorced from all the stuff that is happening here making these decisions.”
Friday said that there is “force in that argument”.
“That has nothing to do with corruption. And I certainly would not subscribe to that view,” he added.
And, speaking at the same press conference, opposition senator, Kay Bacchus-Baptiste, who is also a lawyer, said that she disagrees with Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, another lawyer, that a referendum is not needed to switch from the Privy Council to the CCJ.
Gonsalves has come to that conclusion based on an opinion of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court, in response to a question from the attorney general in St. Lucia.
The prime minister said that the opinion means that only a two-thirds majority of Members of Parliament is needed to make the change.
“That is not my position,” Bacchus-Baptiste said, adding that the court had did not have a unanimous view on the issue.
“I subscribe to the opinion of the dissenting judge, which was very, very well done, that a referendum is still required. I think that is the feeling in the other Caribbean islands, certainly in Jamaica that a referendum would be required,” the senator said.
She added: “So, it is not automatic to believe, as Dr. Gonsalves is saying, that a referendum is no longer required — just a two-thirds majority in the house. That issue is still to be tested.”
The senator said that this is the point she was making during the debate of the Attorney General’s Reference Act, which was passed in SVG earlier this year.
It was that act that gave the attorney general in St. Lucia the authority to seek the court’s interpretation of the constitution.
Bacchus-Baptiste noted that under the law, what the court gives is its view.
“What is given is an opinion. It is not a judgement. It is not binding. It doesn’t really have the force of law, so it could be a waste of taxpayers’ money when you take a question to the court and the court gives an opinion and you don’t necessary have to follow it.
“It is exactly what I was speaking about — what was the weakness of passing this act, but it is not a decision that is appealable or a decision that you are bounded by,” Bacchus-Baptiste said.
Debate about joining the CCJ has been reinvigorated in SVG since the ascension of Vincentian jurist, Justice Adrian Saunders to its presidency last month.
The CCJ is the judicial institution of CARICOM and has an original and an appellate jurisdiction.
In its original jurisdiction, the CCJ interprets and applies the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas, which established CARICOM, and is an international court with compulsory and exclusive jurisdiction in respect of the interpretation of the treaty.
In its appellate jurisdiction, the CCJ hears appeals as the court of last resort in both civil and criminal matters from those member states that have ceased to allow appeals to the Privy Council.
Only four countries, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, and Guyana, have replaced the Privy Council’s appellate jurisdiction with that of the CCJ.