By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk” May 26, 2023)
Last April, the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) marked its 17th year of existence. Established on April 16, 2005, the court has long established its bonafide as an institution that delivers sound judgments that stand the test of time, contribute to the development of Caribbean jurisprudence and make justice much more accessible. Yet most CARICOM countries continue to maintain the British Privy Council as their highest court.
Currently, the citizens of Barbados, Belize, Dominica, and Guyana, whose governments delinked from the British Privy Council have the CCJ as their highest court. Soon, St. Lucians, whose government cleared the constitutional path to join the CCJ, can access justice without travelling thousands of miles to the London-based Privy Council.
Some influencers have frowned on the CCJ because they erroneously claim that regional leaders influence the court or can influence it. However, this very issue was on the minds of those who established the court. Before launching the CCJ in 2005, Caribbean governments borrowed US$100 million from Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) to insulate the CCJ from all forms of perceived or real pressures that may come from the executive branch of government.
It’s significant to note that in the United States, the sitting president selects judges to the US Supreme Court. The nominee indeed goes through the Senate confirmation process. However, court observers know this is a mere formality as votes for each judicial candidate breaks down along stridently partisan lines. Yet no one seriously questions the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. In fact, U.S. justice is celebrated as one of the best in the world.
Those who prefer the Privy Counsel claim they do not trust Caribbean judges. They maintain that our judges went to school with the political elite; they come from the same towns and villages or are from the same class background and may even go to the same churches and frequent the identical social spaces. They like the remoteness of the Privy Councillors, who may seldom know the persons whose cases they decide.
At first glance, this argument seems attractive, but on reflection is rather offensive. Without evidence, the claim is that our judges lack standards, morals and ethics and are for sale. Ask any critic to offer proof that the CCJ is not a credible and independent bulwark for justice and they come up empty. They will not be able to come up with a single decision that lends credence to their view.
Other critics have maintained that before we accept the CCJ as our highest court, we must fix the problems in the magistracy and the high court. This argument is really one of mixing oranges with apples. If our highest court, the Privy Council, is not blamed for these current problems, why burden the CCJ with problems it did not create?
The path to the Privy Council is akin to a long-distance run. The court sits in London. The court does not understand our region’s cultural, social and economic realities. In addition, it is costly to access justice at the Privy Council. If you are rich, you get to litigate your case at our apex court. Those who lack financial resources get to accept justice on a special pass based on the legal importance of the matter involved.
The administrative fees may cost a fortune to litigate a matter before the Privy Council. Then there are attorney fees, the cost of travel, lodging, etc. Justice is expensive but it’s much more so if you are poor.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating. All countries that have acceded to the court’s jurisdiction have witnessed a dramatic increase in matters that go to the CCJ. Moreover, the CCJ has consistently ruled against those states that come under its jurisdiction. This clearly indicates that CCJ is not beholden to any politician or government. It is a model of judicial independence.
There is another important reason why all regional governments should delink from the Privy Council and make the CCJ our highest court. This issue relates to the return of our patrimony. Our sovereignty and independence were snatched from us in 1763 when France and England decided to divvy up the world between them at the Treaty of Paris. Our Garifuna and Kalinago ancestors were so incensed by these European arrogance that they fought valiant wars to regain our patrimony. In this fight our sole national hero Joseph Chatoyer gave his life. We must remember not to forget.
It is palpably wrong for any civilised people to have a foreign sovereign. To reject the CCJ and retain the Privy Council as our highest court is a clear sign colonial, Eurocentric ideas continue to dominate our mental processes.
How could it be right and proper for our children to grow up with the knowledge that while they can become whatever they choose as a profession they will never be able to aspire to the position of member of or chief justice of our highest court? This is a stain that we need to erase soonest.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former senator and Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].