“There is no beast anywhere more dangerous than a man or woman who has power, when that power is answerable only to that person’s prejudice, that person’s caprice, that person’s whims or that person’s rage.” Former Barbados Prime Minister Freundel Stuart, January 10, 2022.
The 26th President of the United States of America, Theodore Roosevelt, once noted that no man is above the law and no man is below it. He added that neither is permission requested of man when asked to obey the law.
Volumes have been written and many words spoken about the rule of law and its importance to civil society. Most, if not all truly democratic nations, respect the authority and the judicial processes of their law courts. To do otherwise, is to undermine the respect and confidence which citizens have for their judiciary and the dispensing of justice.
On Monday night former prime minister Freundel Stuart reflected on an incident of such gravity that though it has been mentioned in some specific quarters, it has not triggered the type of national debate that it merits.
We would hope that Barbadians have not become so apathetic or so fearful with respect to discussing matters of national significance that they allow them to pass under the mistaken belief that they have not been affected personally.
Some years ago, several police officers brought a lawsuit to court with respect to their promotions or lack thereof. It was an unprecedented move which resulted in defeat for them at the Supreme Court.
In dismissing the lawsuit, Justice Margaret Reifer informed the police officers that their case had no merit. The case was taken to the Appellate Court before three judges, including the then Chief Justice, and it was again dismissed.
Two courts spoke and the rule of law was applied. However, in what has been described by many as a “slap in the face” of Barbados’ judicial system, Government took the unprecedented and highly irregular decision to settle the case with the plaintiffs who had lost.
And in what some have described as a “slap in the face” of taxpayers, that settlement was sealed with the details of the payout known only to the recipients and their legal representatives. And, of course, the Government.
The question being asked is simply – why? Those who have followed this peculiar turn of events have juxtaposed the gifting of money to the losing plaintiffs with Government’s failure to pay its nurses their salaries.
The pricey taxpayers’ gift to the police officers has also been juxtaposed with pensioners losing a huge chunk of their moneys in 2019, and the possibility that their pensions could be under threat again this year.
The monetary handshake with the police officers has been juxtaposed with cuts in spending and personnel in various government departments. Government’s actions have been contrasted with a situation where the country has significant financial issues, and has been the author of a narrative that “things are tight” and “tough decisions have to be made”.
For a government that has been accused of being supremely adept at optics, this scenario baffles because it is not a good look.
To date, no effort to explain to taxpayers why it made a decision to bestow money upon a group of losing plaintiffs when the courts of Barbados twice ruled that they had no cause, their case had no merit, and therefore the logical conclusion was that they were not entitled to a single coin.
Drawing from history, Mr Stuart gave examples of two former European leaders who had by their gifting of largesse to, and patronage of enforcement figures, had obligated them to be at their call.
Mr Stuart, however, explained that he had the fullest confidence in the local men and women of the constabulary whom he knew to be people of honour and integrity.
But we believe that having lost the case against the state, the officers have been placed in a position where their future actions could be questioned, especially where the government and ordinary citizens might be at odds and their interventions are crucial to the decision-making process.
Perceptions sometimes can be as important as reality. In the final analysis, there is a consistency to judicial decisions that this matter has run completely counter to. You win a case, and you are rewarded or exonerated; you lose a case and you face some penalty or suffer some lost. This is a matter that its inconsistency suggests, contrary to the sentiments of Roosevelt – that some men could be above the law and others below it.