By Jomo Sanga Thomas
“We must investigate and interrogate our body of laws to determine whether our system represents rule by law or the rule of law.” — Justice Peter Jamadar, Caribbean Court of Justice.
We have said it before, and this is as good a time as any to repeat, had it not been for the vigilance of the Teachers’ Union and the Public Service Union, the courageous and brilliant judges in the civil division of our court and erudite, legal heavyweights who occupy the benches of the Court of Appeal, St. Vincent and the Grenadines would have been on the lower rung of Dante’s inferno when it comes to due process and the rule of law.
If you fail to comprehend the gravity of the forgoing point reflect on the fact that Leon “Bigger Bigs” Samuel, Elvis Daniel, Kenroy Johnson, Addison Thomas, Otto Sam and Jamali Whyte would have been economically assassinated by the Ralph Gonsalves administration for having the “balls” to oppose, protest and contest policies, join with others to work for a change of government or stand for their right to make a decent living.
To save their jobs, secure their pensions and gratuity, protect their reputation as well as live freely and decently, they had to seek the protection of the law courts. And even now, years after some decisions, Legal Affairs Minister, Ralph Gonsalves, has refused to put the machinery in place to satisfy judgments, as well as pay cost and interest.
Last Wednesday, following the brilliant legal work spearheaded by QC Stanley Stalky John, his son Akin, with yours truly as a tag-along, Bigger Bigs Samuel scored yet another victory in his long battle against the vindictive policies of the PM Gonsalves and his bureaucratic minions. It was painful to watch “Bigger” wipe tears from his eyes as Justice Henry dismissed the government’s applications to appeal an earlier decision and stay the proceedings.
The game is up, but because Gonsalves has morphed from luminary lawyer into a political, legal and wrong-headed ideologue, he continues to waste hundreds of thousands of taxpayers’ money in pursuit of one hopeless, frivolous and vexatious political witch hunt after another. If the payments were coming out of Gonsalves’ fortune, he would never have brought these actions. Moreover, he will certainly not allow a $500,000 judgment to rack up interest of more than $500,000 and counting.
Cost follows the “Bigger Bigs” decision. It is we the people who would be made to pay. Somebody, anybody, everybody, beginning with some brave soul in the leadership of the Unity Labour Party (ULP), needs to whisper in Gonsalves’ ears that the game is up. He must finally resolve that in a democracy all the people will never support him, even as you self-decorate with general’s stripes and take on the vainglorious title of “World Boss”.
The utter disregard shown to the administration of justice offers a clear indication of the government’s priorities. Over the last two years, some serious injustices have befallen ordinary folks in the Kingstown Magistrate’s Court. First, Senior Magistrate Ricky Burnette was made a master in the civil division, and for the entire duration of that stint, the court remained locked.
The government refused to hire a temporary magistrate. As a consequence, the lives of hundreds of persons were placed on hold. Some people who were arrested and could not make bail spent more time on remand than they might have spent in jail, if they were convicted. Others could not leave the state or engaged in other activities such as travel because their travel documents were confiscated while they awaited their day in Court.
And then, when magistrate Burnett returned, the entire system was turned upside down as the COVID-19, pandemic took hold. Cases were adjourned, and a backlog ensued. Even now, as things ease back to normal, the problem persists as bailiffs all too often, fail to serve summons that will result in parties appearing in court.
Those who follow Parliament may remember opposition senator, Israel Bruce asking a question about the failure of service in the magistrate court, and pleaded with the legislature to allow for private service. This suggestion met with a dodgy, stonewalling response from PM Gonsalves.
The problem continues and is getting worse. Magistrate Burnett constantly complains about the lack of service of summons by bailiffs, all to no avail. Evidently, the generalised inconvenience to the public fails to strike a nerve with those in authority.
But the government knows where to place emphasis. Even when Magistrate Burnett was called up for higher service as a master, one set of cases were heard every week. All traffic offences were shifted to the Serious Offences Court where motorists were compelled to pay hundreds of dollars for minor traffic offences. “Caesar” remains unprepared to wait for his “pound of poor people’s flesh”.
And then there is the charade that passes for police evidence during very serious trials in the criminal court.
It was most refreshing last week to hear a senior prosecutor describe a police officer as a “dastardly liar”.
Police officers will take the stand and smugly recite word for word statements that run for five and six pages. They smile with contentment at their accomplishment and when cross-examined, quite often they are made into silly putty. They routinely lie to judge and jury. In the end, their credibility is in tatters. Still, during summation, there is never a judge’s caution that calls on the jury to recall the police evidence and pay attention to his or her credibility, and thus the reliability of the evidence tendered.
Not so with a criminal defendants though. Some judges never fail to tell the jury that when a lawyer puts his client’s case to the witnesses then the client fail to testify, an adverse inference can be drawn. Never mind the defendant has a constitutionally protected right to silence.
Or we may consider the fact that as we approach the third decade of the 21st Century, there is still no legal aid service in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Criminal defendants, facing serious charges that could land them in prison for decades, go unrepresented against experienced prosecutors. Worse, there is little or no assistance from the bench to protect the defendant against self-incrimination.
The increasing frequency with which prisoners are diagnosed with serious mental health issues should surprise no one. Calypsonian Shadow did say poverty is a crime. We fear truth may soon become an offence.