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Privy Council an intimidating place

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Covering cases before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council is a journalist’s dream, especially for Caribbean reporters. So, last Wednesday’s announcement by the Prime Minister that Trinidad and Tobago would soon withdraw from the London-based court, budding court reporters from this country would be robbed of the opportunity to cover cases at the highest level.


The Privy Council is no ordinary court. It is intimidating, especially for young reporters. In Trinidad, judges and lawyers are robed in the courtroom. In the Privy Council, judges are dressed in jacket and tie. But lawyers must wear robes and wigs. Lawyers from T&T did not wear the wig in the Privy Council because we are under the Republican Constitution.


The judges sit on the same level as everyone in the courtroom. They are very close to the lawyers and the rest of the court. There is no press table. Reporters must sit in the last row of the bar table. Seating is very limited to the public. A whisper to a person sitting next to you can be heard by the judges.



The court usher, dressed in a scissors-tail suit, keeps hovering over you, looking for any opportunity to ask you to leave the court. Even before you get to the courtroom, you are subjected to a thorough search as the entrance was the same as the one to the Prime Minister’s office at 10 Downing Street. The court has since been moved adjacent to Westminster Abbey.


Sometimes it was very difficult hearing and understanding the lawyers as their backs were facing you. Covering cases in the Privy Council brought out the best in a reporter. During my years on the beat, I have covered 11 cases before the Privy Council—spanning from 1993 to 2008. On many occasions, lawyers joked in the coffee shop at the Hall of Justice in Port-of-Spain that I have been to the Privy Council more times than most of the country’s lawyers.


Let me say from the beginning, I cherished every opportunity to go to London to cover appeals. I have made long-lasting friendships with English lawyers such as Geoffrey Robertson, QC, Ronald Thwaites, QC, and John Almeida. Not to mention, I have gotten close to two Law Lords, both of whom are retired now, and with whom I shared several trips to English pubs.



I have travelled on several occasions with them on the train. Yes, the train. They take public transportation to and from the court. I have been to the home of one Lord on several occasions, and I enjoyed every moment of it.


I remember the very first time when I was asked to go to London to cover the appeal of suspended High Court Judge Richard Alfred Crane. He had been suspended by the Judicial and Legal Services Commission for misconduct. He filed for judicial review. He also pursued a constitutional motion.



He lost in the High Court, but won by a 2-1 majority in the Court of Appeal. He went to the Privy Council with his lawyers being Robertson, leading Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj. He won an unanimous decision and was back to work.


That was the beginning of my many trips to England. The following year, the issue of the amnesty granted to the Jamaat al Muslimeen during the 1990 attempt coup was raised in the Privy Council. While the local courts ruled that the amnesty was valid, the Law Lords ruled otherwise.



It was also during that appeal in 1994 that lawyers for convicted killer, Glen Ashby tried to get the Privy Council to stop his execution. It was too late, and I remember clearly one Law Lord saying, “those people in Trinidad are barbaric.” It was also during a break in the appeal that superstar Brian Lara scored 501 not out for Warwickshire against Durham at Edgbaston to become the highest scorer in first class cricket.


Appeals flowed over the years with more death penalty cases. Attempts to hang Lincoln Guerra, Darren Thomas and others fell by the wayside as the Law Lords put stumbling blocks in our way. In 1993, the Pratt and Morgan judgement gave authorities five years in which to hang convicted killers. The Jamaican case of Lewis versus the Crown put added pressure on the system as convicted killers could review decisions of the Mercy Committee.


Then in 2003, the Law Lords, in a Trinidad case of Roodal versus the State, ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional. What a mess! Anti-death penalty supporters were overjoyed as the death penalty was no more.


But then attorney general, John Jeremie, did not take that lying down. He consulted with his colleagues in Barbados and Jamaica and petitioned the Privy Council to hear the matter again. They used the Trinidadian case of Charles Matthew. For the very first time, the Privy Council sat with nine judges. The Privy Council courthouse at Downing Street was too small, so the hearing was shifted to the Moses Room inside the Houses of Parliament.


By a five to four majority decision, the Privy Council reversed themselves and the death penalty was constitutional again. But 47 convicted killers who were on death row when the Roodal decision was given won a reprieve. Their sentences were commuted to life imprisonment and their lives were spared.



Since this decision, Trinidad and Tobago has not been able to execute anyone. No death warrants have been read to any prisoner and the murder toll continues to rise. There is wanton disregard for human life, as a death row inmate once said, “they doh hang nobody in Trinidad.”


So, it very surprising that the Privy Council dismissed Dole Chadee’s constitutional motion one morning in 1999, and within two hours he along with two others were executed at the Port-of-Spain State Prison. Over the next two days, another six persons belonging to the Chadee gang were also hanged.


The following years also saw important cases before the Privy Council. Former prime minister Basdeo Panday went to the Privy Council hoping to block a second trial on charges that he knowingly failed to declare a Natwest London bank account to the Integrity Commission. He failed. That case is still pending.


Former chief justice Sat Sharma also sought the Privy Council’s intervention as the police attempted to charge him with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. He failed in the Privy Council, but the case collapsed in the Port-of-Spain Magistrates’ Court, and he returned to work before his retirement which came weeks later.


With the plans by the Government to withdraw from the Privy Council in criminal appeals, focus would switch to the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) whose headquarters is based in Port-of-Spain. Time will tell how great this works.


Francis Joseph is a former Guardian journalist


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