The High Court will today begin hearing oral testimony in the two election petitions filed by the main opposition New Democratic Party (NDP).
The hearing takes place at the NIS Conference Room in Kingstown, before acting High Court judge, Trinidadian Stanley John, the third judge to preside over the case.
The NDP’s Benjamin “Ben” Exeter and Lauron “Sharer” Baptiste are challenging the announced victories of Sir Louis Straker and Montgomery Daniel in Central Leeward and North Windward in the Dec. 9, 2015 general elections.
Electoral officials say the Unity Labour Party won those seats and six others to secure a fourth consecutive term in office.
They say that the ULP won eight of the seats in the 15member Parliament, while the remaining seven went to the NDP.
The government has maintained that it did nothing illegal at the polls and says that the elections were conducted in keeping with the law.
Last month, Minister of Finance, Camillo Gonsalves told Parliament that the government has paid lawyers EC$649,500 to defend the government in the petitions case.
Then Supervisor of Elections, Sylvia Findlay, who had filed an affidavit that seemed to support the petitioners’ claim, and a number of election officials are expected to testify in the case.
The court is hearing oral testimony after a series of developments and delays in the case.
In June 2017, Justice Esco Henry ruled that the petitions could proceed to trial and were not improperly filed, as the government had claimed.
She ruled that while the sureties given in support of the petitions were insufficient, they are valid, as another High Court judge, Justice Brian Cottle, had initially ruled in 2016.
The Court of Appeal later overturned Justice Cottle’s decision.
Justice Henry allowed each petitioner time to deposit EC$5,000 with the High Court so that the case can proceed, or have the petitions dismissed.
The case had been assigned to Justice Henry after the Court of Appeal overturned Justice Cottle’s decision and remitted the case to the High Court, to be heard by a different judge.
However, last December, Justice Henry recused herself after it became apparent that she was scheduled to preside over 12 other matters during the week when the petitions should have been heard.
Justice Henry recused herself after the scheduling conflict was discovered and the High Court Registrar is said to be investigating how the scheduling conflict occurred.
The development resulted in questions about whether a “ULP gatekeeper” had attempted to shut the door on the NDP’s petition.
Justice Henry reportedly told lawyers in the case that she did not want persons to get the impression that she had known that last December’s hearing would not have gone ahead.
Days before the recusal, Justice Henry had granted an adjournment to Feb. 11 –today’s date — because Grahame Bollers, Daniel’s lawyer, was ill.
Carlos James, another lawyer for the government in the case, had made the application on Bollers’ behalf.
In addition to granting the adjournment, Justice Henry had also ordered that Daniel find a new lawyer ahead of today’s hearing.
Duane Daniel has since been retained to represent the MP Daniel.
Lawyers for the petitioners had expressed concern that with Justice Henry’s recusal, the petitions could have been further delayed.
The NDP had also said that it was holding the court to this week’s date for the hearing of oral testimony in the long delayed matter.
The High Court later appointed Justice John to hear the matter.
With the case now being heard three years after the last election and just over two years before the next one is constitutionally due, interest in the matter has waned significantly.
When the hearing of September 2018 was adjourned to December 2018, senior counsel Anthony Astaphan, a lawyer for the government in the case, said the petitions have “become an academic issue now, for all practical purpose”, even as the NDP claimed “political victory”.
But after the development last December, Leader of the Opposition and NDP president, Godwin Friday said that his party’s commitment to the petitions “will not wane”.
“We know there is evidence that illegality went on in the election, based on the design of the ballots. But there are many other things that happened that were not in accordance with the best practices for conduct of elections, and that’s putting it mildly,” Friday said.
He further stated:
“When you don’t have legitimacy in the electoral system, people adopt other means of settling their disputes. We don’t want that to happen in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. We urge all the parties to cooperate and to ensure that his matter gets to trial as quickly as possible.”