Veteran constitutional lawyer Dr Francis Alexis QC said the cost of going to the London-based Privy Council is about six times more than the cost of going to the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) located in Trinidad.
He stressed that the people of Antigua & Barbuda stand to gain if they vote in favour of a referendum to move from the Council to the CCJ because access to justice will become more readily available.
“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 and if you lose you may have to find another $30,000,” he said.
In comparison, he said the cost to go to the CCJ would be about EC$20,000.
Another plus for residents, he said, is that they do not have to travel to the Trinidad based CCJ since the court moves from state to state and it has systems in place to conduct hearings by videoconference and other technology.
Additionally, he said the CCJ also has a provision to cover the legal expenses for a litigant who cannot afford to pay. The privy council, he said, does not provide this service.
“So if you are indigent, they have a means test and they can further cut the costs. Furthermore, you can stay in Antigua & 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.
In his view, the CCJ is on even keel with the Council in terms of intellect, but the CCJ goes further in helping to reform the lower courts in the region, unlike the Privy Council.
The Queen’s Counsel said residents’ argument 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. And, the fear that the court would be pressured by political interference, he said is unjustified.
“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.”
The legal expert added, “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 court 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’.”
Dr Alexis is in Antigua & Barbuda advising the Constitution Reform Committee on legislative changes needed as the country prepares for a referendum to determine whether to retain the Council as its final appellate court.
Meanwhile, records provided by former Attorney General Justin Simon QC show 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.
Among the cases taken to the Council was the appeal by former minister Hilroy Humphreys – whose challenge of Government’s introduction of committal hearings to replace preliminary investigations was dismissed; the new procedure allows for a quicker paper indictment instead of the lengthy and costly preliminary trial with evidence given on oath and cross-examination before a Magistrate in an indictable criminal case.
Another well-known case was by Half Moon Bay (Resort) Holdings- whose challenge of the government’s compulsory acquisition of the company’s lands was dismissed on the ground that the acquisition was indeed for a public purpose and was justified given the company’s repeated failure (notwithstanding the grant of generous concessions), to develop the property following its destruction by hurricane.
A third case was by FBO (2000) Ltd. – in which Government’s challenge of the finding by the Court of Appeal that compensation and costs were to be paid to the company by the Government for its deliberate sale to Allen Stanford of airport lands previously agreed to be leased to FBO (2000) Ltd, was successful; and the sale to the now disgraced former billionaire Stanford was held to be subject to the 25-year lease as an encumbrance.