By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(Plain Talk, Sept. 20, 2019)
“The conduct of government by a Prime Minister and Cabinet collectively responsible and accountable to Parliament lies at the heart of Westminster democracy. Ministers are accountable to Parliament through such mechanisms as their duty to answer Parliamentary questions and to appear before Parliamentary committees, and through Parliamentary scrutiny of the delegated legislation which ministers make. By these means, the policies of the executive are subjected to consideration by the representatives of the electorate, the executive is required to report, explain and defend its actions, and citizens are protected from the arbitrary exercise of executive power.” — British Supreme Court.
The recent decision of the British Supreme Court on the powers of the executive and the 2018 decision of the Caribbean Court of Justice on the no confidence vote in Guyana, offer very important lessons for our democracy, especially the speedy way the cases worked their way through the courts. These lessons are critically important considering the election petition cases that have been going on for almost four years – 80%of the term of the current government.
Below are import excerpts from the English case:
“Although the United Kingdom does not have a single document entitled ‘The Constitution’, it nevertheless possesses a Constitution, established over the course of our history by common law, statutes, conventions and practice. Since it has not been codified, it has developed pragmatically, and remains sufficiently flexible to be capable of further development. Nevertheless, it includes numerous principles of law, which are enforceable by the courts in the same way as other legal principles. In giving them effect, the courts have the responsibility of upholding the values and principles of our constitution and making them effective. It is their responsibility to determine the legal limits of the powers conferred on each branch of government, and to decide whether any exercise of power has transgressed those limits. The courts cannot shirk that responsibility merely on the ground that the question raised is political in tone or context.
“The legal principles of the constitution are not confined to statutory rules, but include constitutional principles developed by the common law. We have already given two examples of such principles, namely that the law of the land cannot be altered except by or in accordance with an Act of Parliament, and that the Government cannot search private premises without lawful authority. Many more examples could be given. Such principles are not confined to the protection of individual rights, but include principles concerning the conduct of public bodies and the relationships between them. For example, they include the principle that justice must be administered in public and the principle of the separation of powers between the executive, Parliament and the courts. In their application to the exercise of governmental powers, constitutional principles do not apply only to powers conferred by statute, but also extend to prerogative powers. For example, they include the principle that the executive cannot exercise prerogative powers to deprive people of their property without the payment of compensation.
“Two fundamental principles of our constitutional law are relevant to the present case. The first is the principle of Parliamentary sovereignty: that laws enacted by the Crown in Parliament are the supreme form of law in our legal system, with which everyone, including the Government, must comply. However, the effect which the courts have given to Parliamentary sovereignty is not confined to recognising the status of the legislation enacted by the Crown in Parliament as our highest form of law. Time and again, in a series of cases since the 17th century, the courts have protected Parliamentary sovereignty from threats posed to it using prerogative powers, and in doing so have demonstrated that prerogative powers are limited by the principle of Parliamentary sovereignty. To give only a few examples, in the Case of Proclamations the court protected Parliamentary sovereignty directly, by holding that prerogative powers could not be used to alter the law of the land. Three centuries later, the court prevented the Government of the day from seeking by indirect means to bypass Parliament, in circumventing a statute through the use of the prerogative. More recently, the court again prevented the Government from rendering a statute nugatory through recourse to the prerogative and was not deflected by the fact that the Government had failed to bring the statute into effect. As Lord Browne-Wilkinson observed in that case, ‘the constitutional history of this country is the history of the prerogative powers of the Crown being made subject to the overriding powers of the democratically elected legislature as the sovereign body’.
“The sovereignty of Parliament would, however, be undermined as the foundational principle of our constitution if the executive could, through the use of the prerogative, prevent Parliament from exercising its legislative authority for as long as it pleased. That, however, would be the position if there was no legal limit upon the power to prorogue Parliament. An unlimited power of prorogation would therefore be incompatible with the legal principle of Parliamentary sovereignty.
“The same question arises in relation to a second constitutional principle, that of Parliamentary accountability, described by Lord Carnwath as no less fundamental to our constitution than Parliamentary sovereignty. As Lord Bingham said, ‘the conduct of government by a Prime Minister and Cabinet collectively responsible and accountable to Parliament lies at the heart of Westminster democracy’. Ministers are accountable to Parliament through such mechanisms as their duty to answer Parliamentary questions and to appear before Parliamentary committees, and through Parliamentary scrutiny of the delegated legislation which ministers make. By these means, the policies of the executive are subjected to consideration by the representatives of the electorate, the executive is required to report, explain and defend its actions, and citizens are protected from the arbitrary exercise of executive power.”
This decision as well as that of the CCJ did not only pronounce on major points of law. They speedily brought finality to thorny issues that divided the society and threatened to bring constitutional and societal order in question. After almost four years, our courts are still grappling with issues that arose out of the 2015 elections.
This does not bode well for our democracy and court system must urgently address this problem.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
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