Trinidad court dismisses constitution motion

AnandRamlogan-1Port of Spain, Trinidad — High Court judge Justice Frank Seepersad has dismissed as premature a constitutional motion filed by the Independent Liberal Party (ILP) challenging the constitutionality of the Constitution Amendment Bill in Trinidad and Tobago.

The government has therefore scored a victory in the legal battle to have the bill struck down.

Attorney General Anand Ramlogan, who had personally appeared for the state, said on Monday he was “elated and happy… that in my first case as senior counsel we have emerged victorious” especially since, “there was a lot of gloom and doom” about the bill being railroaded.

He said the constitutional motion was “wholly without merit, entirely misconceived and therefore the court was right to dismiss this matter”.

“The state stands ready, poised willing and able to defend any challenge to the constitutional validity of this bill, now or in the hereafter,” he said, speaking at a news conference.

The court also awarded full costs to the state.

Seepersad said the claimants’ claims were “premature”, the bill not having undergone the full parliamentary process and procedure. The bill, which contains a controversial run off provision, is currently before Parliament. It was passed in the House of Representatives, and then went to the Senate, where it was passed with amendments. These amendments have to come back to the House of Representatives for debate and approval.

Seepersad said: “It is possible that the legislature may or may not agree with the amendments effected in the Senate and it may also be possible that the voices of concern that have echoed in relation to aspects of the bill may resonate with the executive and cause a reassessment of its position, including a review as to whether extensive public consultation should be undertaken before enactment.”

He said the government had held back on bringing the bill back to the House out of respect for the judicial arm of the state. He said with a judgment now in its favour government can move forward with the bill in Parliament.

“Of course they can appeal but this is a matter that we feel very strongly about,” he said, adding that an appeal would not affect the government’s legislative agenda because the court had pronounced “forcefully” on the issue. He said it would be ill-conceived for anyone to take the matter further in the courts or file a fresh challenge while the issue is still before the Parliament.

Ramlogan said the ILP’s constitutional motion was novel and unprecedented because it was challenging the constitutional validity of the bill “while it was still undergoing review and scrutiny” by the Parliament and which has not been enacted into law.

Ramlogan said it was in those circumstances he thought it sufficiently important to “represent the state in my personal capacity”.

“And the reason I did so was because the architecture of our constitution is one that is underpinned by the doctrine of the separation of powers and if that architecture is fractured it can lead to the undermining of the rule of law and the separation of the three branches — the legislative, judicial and executive arms of the state,” he explained.

“The court was being invited by a political party to interfere with, comment on, criticise even, a bill that is before the Parliament at a time when the Parliament was still considering the matter and the bill was pending in the bosom of the Parliament,” he said.

“Had the court been persuaded to entertain such an application under Section 14 of the constitution it would have made a serious transgression and trespass onto the constitution, that is the sole and exclusive preserve of the legislative arm and the Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago,” he said.

The judge dismissed the constitution motion on the ground that it was premature and thus an abuse of the court’s process and, Ramlogansaid, “In so doing the learned judge underscored the need for mutual respect” between the judiciary and the parliament.

“The smooth, efficient and effective functioning of a democracy such as ours in Trinidad and Tobago requires that mutual respect is exercised and that each arm of state undertakes its respective functions, in such a manner, so as to not usurp the jurisdiction of another arm of state,” the judgment stated.

The AG also noted that the judge stated: “The court, though cognisant of the expressed concerns that have been made in relation to the ‘run off’ provisions of the bill must never arbitrarily trespass onto the legislature’s domain. Discontent, discord and disenchantment are normal within a thriving democracy as is the need to be receptive to constitutional amendments that are legitimately effected in the nation’s best interest. Ultimately it is always open to the electorate to ratify or reject the acts, behaviour and decisions of their elected representatives, when general elections are held.”

Ramlogan said this statement of the judge was consistent with the government’s position in this matter “from day one”.

The ILP, through the claimants, Stephen Mitchell and Dayne Francois, plan to appeal the ruling.

In a release issued on Monday, the ILP stated the procedural matter was heard but the substantive matter was not heard.

“The judge dismissed the application of the two claimants basically on the ground that their application is premature and should await the outcome of the final deliberations of the Bill in the Parliament. The judge did rule however that the courts did have jurisdiction re any law which is considered unconstitutional before it is passed but such intervention should only be if the result is considered irreversible. He said that he did not believe that the present situation can be considered irreversible and as such one should not be proactive in the matter,” the ILP stated.

The claimants have instructed their counsel to appeal Justice Frank Seepersad’s ruling and the appeal is expected to be filed later this week.

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