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Is there a systematic erosion and dismantling of the rule of law in SVG?

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Editor: Concern is growing in SVG in relation to the trend of the current government of the Unity Labour Party (ULP) to abolish, amend and or introduce new legislation which, on the face of it, at the very least, seems geared towards curtailing the rights and freedoms of the citizens of the country, and in the process eating away at the rule of law. When one talks about the rule of law in a country, one is basically talking about the laws of that country and how those laws ought to protect every citizen; and also how in those laws every citizen ought to have the confidence that no man is above the law.{{more}} The concern is intensifying as to whether this basic premise of the rule of law prevails in SVG, and even if it does prevail, whether there are systematic attempts by this government to erode and dismantle such.

It cannot escape the attention and the consciousness of the ordinary man on the street that the government in April 2007 introduced legislation, which commonly and notoriously became known as the ‘one dollar tax’, to charge a fare of one dollar to departing passengers from the Grenadines wharf in Kingstown. This was a law which the SVG Green Party referred to as ‘the one dollar apartheid tax’. One cannot help but recall how the people of SVG (and in particularly those of the Grenadines who felt they were specifically targeted because in the main they do not support the government) took to the streets of Kingstown, the capital of the country, to express their disgust and rejection of this law. The people’s disgust was not only about the introduction of the law itself, but also the very circumstances and methods used by the government to solidify this law. One remembers that when the government recognised the flaws in its procedure, against which the Opposition took legal action and would most certainly have won the ensuing court action, they held a weekend caucus and remedied the procedural defects. One remembers, too, the prime minister’s boasts about the action which they took. Of course, the rest is history, and the bill became law. It must not go unnoticed, though, that when the prime minister’s back was against the wall and an election defeat in 2010 loomed large he announced the abolition of that law.

The Vincentian populace would also not forget when the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) was abolished from the law books in SVG. PACE came on the law books in SVG as a piece of legislation to regulate the behaviour of the police in relation to criminal investigations. PACE was first introduced in the United Kingdom in 1984 due to the various police brutalities and deaths in police custody, and forced confessions of suspects which led to a string of wrongful convictions. The police in SVG, therefore, were governed by codes under PACE to which they had to adhere when they investigated crimes. It, therefore, remains inconceivable that a government would abolish such a law unless there is some underlying motive. One can formulate various opinions as to what that motive is, including whether these are the early steps in the creation of a police state. One thing that is certain, however, is that any defender of civil liberties and human rights ought to be appalled and seriously concerned that a government would contemplate much less abolish such a piece of legislation which sat at the very heart of the criminal justice system. But abolish it they did! It is worthy of note that since the introduction of PACE in the UK the many police atrocities which led to wrongful convictions have been reduced dramatically, if not obliterated altogether. The inescapable question as to whether police brutality or the perception of police brutality is lessened or increased since the abolition of PACE in SVG will be answered fully over time, although some say that the signs of increase are already there.

The most recent in the line of legislation which is cause for concern to the Vincentian people was passed in the House of Parliament, at very close to the midnight hour on Friday, 28th January, 2011. The government has effectively outlawed the institution of a private criminal complaint in SVG unless it is first of all approved by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). The government has now effectively given ultimate power to the DPP to stop every Vincentian, every ordinary citizen, from bringing private criminal complaints. They have now removed the checks and balances which were provided by the intervention of a member of the magistracy. Any justification given to prevent the ordinary folk from seeking redress in the courts cannot be based on any sound legal footing. It must be noted that the government has also gone against one of the basic tenets of criminal legislation by unethically making the law retroactive or retrospective. One cannot help but wonder why such right is removed and why such power is given retroactively or retrospectively, especially when Vincentians took to the streets to register their disgust and rejection of such a law.

The government is also seeking to repeal subsections 3 and 4 of section 51 of the Representation of the People Act. Note that subsection 3 currently makes it a criminal offence for “a person who before or during an election for the purpose of affecting the return of any candidate or prospective candidate at such election, makes or publishes any false statement in fact in relation to the personal character or conduct of such candidate…”

Note that there were government ministers who were the subject of private criminal complaints under this very section of the Act whose matters were discontinued by the DPP. Note, too, that retroactivity has given the DPP the power to discontinue any such future complaints, if for example they are resurrected as a result of a successful judicial review.

It is interesting to note that in the UK a Labour party candidate, Phil Woolas, was prosecuted and convicted (following the elections of May 2010 when he won his seat) under similar sections of the UK’s Representation of the People Act. His election has been declared null and void and he has been banned from parliament for three years.

Why then has the government abolished PACE which codified and regulated the behaviour of the police? Why have they amended the law to give the DPP the sole right to prevent ordinary citizens from bringing a private criminal complaint against an alleged offender? Why have they made this amendment retroactive or retrospective? Why have they started the process to repeal the relevant sections of the Representation of the People Act which currently outlaw a person from making or publishing false statements in relation to the personal character or conduct of a political candidate seeking election to parliament? It seems that the answers to these questions are leading one to the inescapable conclusion that there is a systematic approach by the government to undermine and dismantle the rule of law in SVG. But if that is indeed the case, what then is the government’s reason for doing so? The answer no doubt will become clearer over time, but in the meantime, it is worth noting that when the rule of law is undermined, it leads to dictatorship, chaos and a total breakdown in society. One could only hope that the ULP government restrains itself and pulls SVG back from the obvious chaos, precipice and depths of despair towards which it is heading.

Brereton Horne