The PNCR appears to have had no difficulty in accepting the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) in its appellate jurisdiction. The CCJ was established in 2005. As a court of original jurisdiction its function is to interpret and apply the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas which established the Carribean Community. Hoping that it would replace the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) as the final court for most of the region, the Heads of Government agreed to clothe the CCJ with an appellate jurisdiction to determine appeals in civil and criminal matters for member states which cease to allow appeals to the JCPC and accede to the jurisdiction of the CCJ. In 1999-2000 the PNCR agreed, without having to be persuaded, to a recommendation by the Constitutional Reform Commission that the Constitution be amended to provide for Guyana’s accession to the CCJ when it was established.
In a statement published last Friday, Vice President Carl Greenidge reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to the CCJ. Notwithstanding adverse decisions and that only four Caricom countries so far have joined the Court’s appellate jurisdiction, the Government was satisfied with its competence and quality. The CCJ was in the news recently when it held that a law which provided that cross dressing for an “improper purpose” was unconstitutional. Also, the electorates of Grenada and Antigua, like St. Vincent a while back, rejected the CCJ as their final court in place of the JCPC. The steadfast support of the CCJ by the Government of Guyana is welcome to all lawyers and should be to all politicians.
Those of us who have lived in Guyana through the 1970s and 1980s, and the subversion of our judiciary in those years during which socialism was declared to be a legal precedent that should be followed, would recognize how vital the CCJ is to Guyana. Guyana was the only country in the Caribbean Region which had abolished appeals to the JCPC and did not have a final court beyond its Court of Appeal. It is no coincidence that Guyana was also the only country in the Caribbean Region, the independence of whose judiciary was substantially challenged. The presence of the CCJ in Guyana’s judicial life is a powerful stimulus to judicial independence, judicial rectitude, judicial administration, legal learning and to the confidence of citizens that their rights will be protected.
Few now remember the destruction of Guyana’s democracy caused by the absence of a final court of appeal. The PPP had decidedly rejected litigation to challenge the constitutionality of the de-gutting and subverting of the Elections Commission and of the Constitution in the late 1960s. The government had transferred the powers of the Commission in the Representation of the People Act to the Chief Elections Officer who then could carry out his electoral skullduggery unsupervised. The reason for the PPP’s position was the certainty that no court under the then government would rule in favour of such a challenge. The PPP’s views about the judiciary were confirmed when it failed to stop the destruction of freedom of expression and of the free press. The Court of Appeal reversed Justice Frank Vieira in the Hope against New Guyana case and found that the restriction of the importation of newsprint, and even of receiving gifts of newsprint from the Jamaica Gleaner, did not violate the constitution. The free press never recovered. These legal atrocities are no longer possible with the CCJ in existence.
In Barbados, Commonwealth citizens residing for a certain period are entitled to vote. Earlier this year the Barbados election authorities refused to register them. Some sued. The matter went through the Barbados courts and reached the CCJ which sat on a Sunday because of the urgency of the matter and reaffirmed their right to vote. It ordered that they be registered. The then Barbados Prime Minister, Freundel Stuart, publicly condemned the decision and undertook to review Barbados’s membership of the CCJ in its appellate jurisdiction. He wouldn’t have succeeded but thankfully, the opposition BLP swept the polls.
More recently, Guyana’s Leader of the Opposition, having once accused the CCJ of conflict of interest because the chief executive officer of TCL was chairman of the CCJ trust fund while a case between TCL against the Guyana Government was going on, hinted that the CCJ would be under scrutiny when it considers the legality of appointment of the Chairman of Guyana’s Election Commission. It is not known whether this enhanced scrutiny has emerged because of the CCJ’s upholding of the appeal in the third term case by ruling that the amendments to the constitution providing for presidential term limits were lawful.
Despite the challenges to the CCJ by losing politicians, its existence as a Caricom institution and Guyana’s final court are assured and are vital to the protection of democracy in Guyana. It is only those who do not understand our history will recklessly challenge the CCJ and give less than enthusiastic support for it. Lawyers are the harshest critics of CCJ’s decisions, particularly when they lose! But we know that the Court’s fearlessness, integrity and supremely high quality are beyond doubt. It is now a matter of happy irony that the present Government is the CCJ’s unwavering supporter.