Justice Westmin James gave Barbadians one of the most substantial judicial rulings in recent times and it has occurred as he is on his way back to his homeland of Trinidad and Tobago, where he has been offered a seat on the bench in the twin-island republic.
The distinguished High Court Judge was only appointed in December 2022 along with Justices Wanda Blair and Anthony L. Blackman and were described by Chief Justice Sir Patterson Cheltenham as “excellent appointments” who were “seasoned in the law”.
Justice James’ ruling this week that threw out as “unconstitutional” the prohibition in the state’s General Orders that barred public servants from participating in active politics, has been welcomed.
Most people believe any commonsense bar on our public officers participating in politics should be imposed judiciously and should be dependent on the role of the officer and how their involvement in party politics might erode public confidence in the office holder and the office.
From a layman’s perspective, it would be a farce, for example, if the Chief Electoral Officer, a senior officer in the Barbados Police Service, the Director of Public Prosecutions, or the Chief Personnel Officer were to take to a political platform lambasting the other political party.
Such an occurrence would certainly be an affront to the intelligence and sensibilities of average Barbadians, who would not only doubt the integrity and credibility of the office holders, but they would have zero respect for the office.
The ruling by Justice James came on the application of Natalie Maria Murray, the public officer who challenged the disciplinary proceedings against her. Most people were completely in the dark about Ms. Murray’s disciplinary hearing for apparently speaking on the platform of the incumbent administration during the 2022 General Election campaign.
The public became engrossed in the well publicised disciplinary charges brought against two educators. Primary school teacher and former president of the Barbados Union of Teachers (BUT) Pedro Shepherd, sought a seat for the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) and Alwyn Babb, a secondary school physical education teacher and coach, also ran for the DLP. Both were placed on suspension on half pay.
In response, the BUT rightly challenged the action, calling it discriminatory and unfair. “It is not a case of these two teachers being part and parcel of the hierarchy of the public service, having access to any government secrets or in any way can affect the proper day-to-day functioning of government,” the union stated.
In addition, the legislation that facilitated the charges against the two teachers, sections of the General Orders and the Public Service Act – were condemned as archaic and there were demands for amendments to be made to bring them in line with the Barbados Constitution.
Reference was expectedly drawn to the judicial rulings in Trinidad and Tobago where public officers can participate in general elections as candidates and resume their posts if they fail in the bid. Critics of the disciplinary action against Mr Babb and Mr Shepherd also cited St Kitts and Nevis, where in 2019, a High Court Judge ruled that sections of that country’s Public Service Act preventing public officers from participating in general elections were unconstitutional.
As we have indicated, most Barbadians could not reconcile the action taken against the teachers, given their role and impact on the public’s confidence in their office as providers of educational services.
Justice James’ ruling in favour of Natalie Murray does not appear to completely resolve all the issues facing Babb and Shepherd, however, it should provide some clarity on the way forward for others choosing to participate in the political apparatus.
As Ms Murray’s attorney-at-law and Independent Senator Gregory Nicholls stated: “This is an important time for us to pause and reflect about the state of regulations that we have always had in Barbados.
“We have a number of regulatory frameworks in Barbados that have stood the test of time. But the question is, do these regulations continue to operate in a way that effectively nullifies and negates Constitutional rights?”
The judge stated there was no question that political neutrality in the Public Service was a legitimate aim and restricting political activity by public servants was rationally connected to that aim.
However, he noted the General Orders 3.18.1 applied to all civil servants without distinctions. We now await the next move by the administration on whether amendments are coming to introduce differences.