The legal adviser to the Elections Commission came in for some blistering, public, abuse by Commissioner Desmond Trotman, who referred to the young lawyer as practising ‘deceit.’ Apparently, the opinion she gave as to the law relating to registration of electors, was not to his liking, as it contradicted the position that he and his fellow Government-appointed Commissioners had been advocating. Ms. Excellence Dazell advised as follows: “I therefore advise that procedures be put in place to ensure the revision of the list, otherwise the Commission would be acting in defiance of the law….” Ms. Dazell argued that “based on (election laws), the list must be updated bi-annually by adding persons who are now qualified to be registered, to that list, and those who are no longer qualified to be registered, to be taken off that list….”
There are two laws that are mainly relevant to registration and elections. These are the National Registration Act and the Election Laws (Amendment) Act.
The Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) has already given a clear indication of its liberal and purposive attitude to constitutional interpretation in the Richardson case last year in which the constitutionality of the two-term presidential limit was challenged. Despite a majority Court of Appeal decision declaring the amendment to the Constitution limiting a President to two terms, and an apparently unassailable argument before the CCJ, supporting the Court of Appeal’s decision, the CCJ would have none of it. In a majority decision, it upheld the amendment thereby sparing Guyanese the potential of a life President, which the amendment was designed to prevent.
In the hearings last week, the two cases heard were the challenges to the appointment of the Chairman of the Elections Commission and to the validity of the no confidence motion passed in the National Assembly on December 21 last which required the Government to call elections by March 21 but which it had steadfastly refused to do on the flimsy argument that it was awaiting rulings from the court.
In English law, fair comment on a matter of public interest is allowed. Generally, it guarantees the freedom of the press to make statements on matters of public interest, as long as the statements are not made with ill-will, spite, or with intent to harm the subject of the comment. For decades, English courts have placed a higher burden on public figures to prove defamation, which includes both libel and slander. This is based on the view that if a person chooses public activity, that person must expect a higher degree of public scrutiny. For example, it is hardly likely that an English court will countenance a defamatory intent against a public figure where an allegation of conflict of interest is made on facts which are essentially true but could be capable of a more generous interpretation.
Fair comment is an ancient common law (judge made law) defence. But it was replaced in the Unites States in 1964 by a defence created in the case of New York Times v Sullivan in which the US Supreme Court decided that actual malice has to be proved to establish defamation. Since it is very difficult to prove actual malice in a journalist or a politician in the cut and thrust of journalism or politics, public life in the US has been largely liberated from the fear of defamation. While the defence of fair comment remained in the U.K. it was increasingly found to be too restrictive for adequate scrutiny of public officials. The courts of the UK have never adopted New York Times v Sullivan but began to test a more liberal approach to criticisms of public officials.
Miles Greeves Fitzpatrick was born on the 12th January, 1936. His parents were the late Maxwell and Millicent Fitzpatrick. He was the brother of the late Eileen Bhola, the husband of Sultana Fitzpatrick, the father of Ron Garry Fitzpatrick and the grandfather of Zoe and Michael. He passed on the 12th March, 2019, at the age of 83, after a short period of declining health but during which he remained engaged and lively. I joined a few mutual friends, his family and some relatives at his home in celebration of his 83rd birthday in January.
Miles was born in Queenstown, Georgetown and attended Queen’s College. After High School, he graduated as a lawyer in 1956 and was called to the British Guiana Bar in January, 1957, following the footsteps of his father, who was a Solicitor and Magistrate. He entered private practice and joined the Peoples’ Progressive Party, an unusual step for a product of the Georgetown middle class. He was active in politics in the pre-Independence 1960s.
The Chief Justice ruled that the no confidence motion was lawfully passed on December 21 in the National Assembly by a 33-32 vote, and that the vote of Charandass Persaud was lawful, notwithstanding that as a dual citizen he was unlawfully occupying his seat in the National Assembly. Consequent upon those findings, the Chief Justice ruled that the Cabinet automatically resigned on the passing of the no confidence motion. The Chief Justice granted neither a stay of execution nor a conservatory order which would have preserved the status quo ante. Yet the Government announced that the status quo remained and Government business will be conducted as usual.
This statement, disrespectful and defiant of the Chief Justice’s ruling, presumably means that the Cabinet will continue to meet and function and take decisions affecting the governance of Guyana, even though it is unlawful to do so. In effect, the Government’s functions must be limited to the implementation of existing decisions as no new ones can be made by the non-existent Cabinet. The statement also means that those Members of the National Assembly who hold dual citizenship will continue to occupy their seats even though the effect of the Chief Justice’s ruling in relation to CharrandassPersaud’s means that their membership is unlawful. Such bold, brazen and open defiance of lawful authority, of the Constitution and of the rule of law by a Government, have never been seen in Guyana after the Burnham era, or in the Commonwealth Caribbean, or in any democratic country for that matter.