ST. JOHN’S, Antigua, Mar 18, CMC – Prominent constitutional lawyer, Dr. Francis Alexis says he will present draft legislation to the Antigua and Barbuda government as the country prepares to hold a referendum on whether or not to replace the London-based Privy Council with the Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ).
Alexis, a former attorney general in Grenada and law lecturer at the University of the West Indies (UWI), said that two of the three instruments needed to facilitate the process, will be ready by Wednesday next week.
Alexis, who also serves as the advisor to the Constitution Reform Committee, said one of the changes needed is ”a Constitution Amendment Bill to be made an Act to amend the provisions of the Constitution on the Supreme Court Order which provides for appeals from Antigua and Barbuda to the Privy Council in London, replacing (the words) the Privy Council in London with the Caribbean Court of Justice.”
He told radio listeners here that an appropriate Referendum Act is necessary.
“There is a Referendum Act on the statute book here but that is not appropriate to the needs of amending the Constitution.
“For example, the existing Referendum Act talks about the (Electoral) Commission but the Constitution of Antigua and Barbuda puts very squarely on the shoulders of the supervisor of elections, responsibility, and sole responsibility for the conduct of a referendum to amend the Constitution,” he said.
The Grenadian jurist said that the Representation of the People Act has to be amended to provide for the referendum.
“You do have a Representation of the People Act providing for the elections of members of the House of Representatives but we will have to modify that Act and adapt it to suit the purpose of the referendum. “For example, in the Act, you will find reference to elections or elections of members of the house, but a referendum is certainly not an election of members of the house…you will also find provision for nomination and references to candidates but those would not be for the referendum,” he added.
Alexis said the draft Constitution Amendment Bill and the proposed Referendum Act will be given to Attorney General Steadroy “Cutie” Benjamin on Wednesday.
But Alexis said that it is very unlikely that the referendum planned for June would be held in that time.
“When the introduction of the first reading is given in the House, 90 days must run out before the House can get into the second reading, the real debate. Then, the Bill has to go to the Senate, if it is passed in the Senate, then you have to set a timeline for the referendum.”
“Ordinarily, in general elections in the Caribbean, you might find there may be an election between 21 to 30 days after the dissolution of Parliament, it may well be that a similar timeline that might be used…but usually the date for a referendum is a matter up for change,” he said.
Government said it estimates the new timeline would shift the referendum to a date some time just before Independence on November 1, 2016.
Meanwhile, Alexis has said the cost of going to the Privy Council is about six times more than the cost of going to the CCJ and that the people Antigua and Barbuda stand to gain if they vote in favour of making the CCJ, the island’s highest court.
“Some of us have been pointing out, myself since 1975, that retaining the Privy Council as our final Court of Appeal is causing injustice to the lowly and the humble because going to the Council costs an average of about EC$130,000 (One EC dollar =US$0.37 cents) and if you lose you may have to find another EC$30, 000,” he said.
In comparison, he said the cost to go to the CCJ would be about EC$20,000.
He said also that given that the CCJ travels to other Caribbean countries to sit, means people would not have to pay the exorbitant costs associated with visits to London to appear before the Privy Council.
“So if you are indigent, they have a means test and they can further cut the costs. Furthermore, you can stay in Antigua and Barbuda and argue your case in the CCJ.
“Notice Lord Neuberger (President of the Privy Council) is talking now about having that. All these centuries they didn’t care about that, but it is only because the CCJ is doing it now that the Privy Council is talking about it…they are protecting their turf,” he said.
The Queen’s Counsel said arguments that the CCJ cannot be trusted by virtue of it being a regional court staffed with individuals from within the small Caribbean community, is baseless, dismissing also suggestions that the court would be pressured by political interference.
“All the other judges are selected by an independent commission. The president is selected by the governments, but in selecting the president, the governments are confined to a list put up by the commission so the governments do not have an independent discretion on the matter.
“Similarly, no judge can be removed from the CCJ except there is an independent tribunal inquiring into the matter of misbehaviour or incompetence, reporting to the Commission and the commission deciding so politicians cannot appoint or remove a judge.”
The constitutional lawyer made the point that the CCJ is financed by an independent body “that is why, the very Privy Council, looking at this arrangement, said in 2005 that the Caribbean Court of Justice is a court of complete independence, enjoying all the advantages which a regional court could hope to enjoy”.
Meanwhile, former attorney general Justin Simon QC, said there were only seven Privy Council appeals during the 10-year tenure of the now opposition United Progressive Party (UPP).
He said he’s certain many more people would have liked to appeal their cases but could not afford to take it to the Council.