ST JOHN’S – President of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) Adrian Saunders Wednesday said while he will not tell citizens of Antigua and Barbuda how to vote in the upcoming referendum on the CCJ, he has a duty nonetheless to provide accurate information about the Trinidad-based court.
Antigua and Barbuda will hold a referendum on November 6 to decide whether or not to replace the London-based Privy Council with the CCJ as the island’s final court.
Speaking on a radio programme here on Wednesday, Justice Saunders, the third Caribbean national to head the CCJ that was established in 2001, said his presence on the island “is to provide information about the court and I think I have a right to do that and I fully intend to do that”.
He told radio listeners that the CCJ, which also functions as an international tribunal interpreting the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas that governs the 15-member regional integration movement, is much more accessible than the Privy Council.
He said research done in his homeland, St Vincent and the Grenadines, over the last 30 years, had shown that there were 21 appeals to the Privy Council with 11 of those cases being civil matters.
“So that effectively the main stream ordinary people, only 11 people were able to appeal and this is out of thousands of cases that the Eastern Caribbean Court of Appeal would have dealt with.
“Why is it only 11 people appeal? In a healthy democracy, the rule of thumb is that about ten per cent of your cases are appealed further,” he said, noting that “11 persons appealed because all of those persons were either persons with substantial means or they were companies.
“What this effectively mean is that ordinary people are effectively denied the opportunity to appeal their cases further. Now this is not only frustrating to the particular person who gets a decision from the Court of Appeal that they are unhappy with and they would like to challenge, but it is also stultifying of the country’s jurisprudence because as you would know the way in which a light is shone on our laws is that somebody has to bring a case”.
He said that if there is a certain of law that is uncertain “you can’t get an ordinary person to test that before your highest court because it is simply too expensive”.
He told radio listeners that the CCJ caters for this by having special procedures for persons “who are of insubstantial means” making reference to the “poor people application” which has been accessed by between five and ten per cent of the cases heard by the CCJ.
Saunders, who met with members of the main opposition United Progressive Party (UPP) on Tuesday, said that “the CCJ is a court that is available to ordinary people whereas the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council is available only to persons with substantial means”.
Saunders dismissed suggestions being made in some circles here that there is need to “fix” the lower courts before any attempt is made to join the CCJ.
“The role of a final court is not just to operate as a post office box that you put in an appeal and get out a result. That is not how final courts operate in other countries. Final courts are involved in interacting with and interfacing with the local justice system below them so that they can improve the local justice system so that they could out a finger on inefficiencies in that system.”
He said that this interaction could assist in ensuring that the systems below “operate in a fair and effective manner.
“I have heard some persons make the point that ‘well the local justice systems are in trouble or that they not functioning efficiently, so where are we going with the CCJ and this astounds me because this is putting things on its head. It is putting things in a topsy-turvey manner.
“It is precisely because you want to tweak those systems, you want to render them more efficient, you want to have your final court interacting and interfacing with the systems below that you need a court that is responsive and that is able to do these things”.
Justice Saunders said that the CCJ has been successfully undertaking such a process in Guyana, one of four Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries that have made the CCJ, its final court, the others being Barbados, Belize and Dominica
“The Privy Council is too remote, is too detached in order to make that kind of intervention. So when people say that ‘oh there are these problems in the courts below and so we need to remain with the Privy Council, it is ridiculous because remaining in the Privy Council does nothing to address those problems of the courts below”.
Justice Saunders said it would be interesting for persons questioning the functioning of the CCJ to ask persons residing in Dominica, Barbados, Guyana and Belize to give an account of their interaction with the Trinidad-based court that has both an Original and Appellate Jurisdiction.
He also questioned the thinking of Caribbean people who say they prefer to trust “English people” at the Privy Council.
“If you say that trust is the main issue is it that Caribbean people are inherently dishonest? Is it that Caribbean people are inherently untrustworthy? Is it that Caribbean people are inherently incompetent, ineffective, I don’t agree with that.
“We trust persons whom we don’t know. We don’t know their background, we don’t know what are the social influences that have formed them, we don’t know what are their attitudes\ towards the Caribbean aspirations and goals, but we say we trust them,” Saunders told radio listeners.
He said that the CCJ is no longer an idea “it is not a concept, it is a living reality, it has been operating for 13 years.
“The people of Barbados, of Guyana, of Belize, of Dominica they have interacted with the CCJ. Why don’t we hear from those people and find out what has been their experiences,” he said, brushing aside arguments that the CCJ tends to be supportive of governments in offices.
Justice Saunders used the recent case where the former Barbados prime minister Freundel Stuart had threatened to leave the court because of a ruling.
“Some people say, oh that’s a court that can be interfered with politically. Well we have given a lot of decisions in relation to matters brought by governments and most of those cases we have found against governments than we have found for them.
“Not because we want to do that but because that is how we perceive the merits of the cases to be,” he told the radio listeners here. (Antigua News Room)