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Hanging on to Colonial coat-tails



We have heard it all before – in the fifties, sixties and seventies – “We are not ready”(for independence, then). It was a song not just sung in the Caribbean, but repeated all over Africa and Asia as well. In spite of this chorus, independence came, but the song continued, much like a warped record. The only change was that in place of independence, post-colonial Caribbean society is refusing to shoulder its burden, so we complain that we are still not ready for unification or for our own regional Court of Final Appeal.{{more}} Various excuses ranging from affordability to lack of impartiality are advanced, in the case of the Final Court, to justify this contradiction.

The latest exposition of this position has come from former Prime Minister Sir James Mitchell in his argument for rejecting the proposed new Constitution for St. Vincent and the Grenadines. For him, the British Privy Council appears to be the proverbial sacred cow. Don’t touch that aspect of our ties with Britain seems to be his own passionate appeal. “Once we get rid of the Privy Council”, he is quoted as saying, “we can’t get it back. Some time in the future we will be able to go there, but I am not sure that we have the checks and balances in our society to match what we have up there.”

However, just as if in refutation of Sir James’ comments, the former Chief Justice of Britain, soon, interestingly, to be President of the Supreme Court of that country, to be established next month, has called on Caribbean countries to take up their legal beds and walk. Lord Nicholas Phillips, in an interview with the Financial Times, cast doubts about the very future of the Privy Council where the Caribbean is concerned. He lamented the fact that the law lords were having to spend “a disproportionate amount of their time on cases from former colonies, including those from the Caribbean. Lord Phillips questioned the need for the Privy Council to have to sit on some of these cases and said that, ideally, the Caribbean countries should set up their own final courts.

CARICOM countries have established their own Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), but some have balked at going all the way to have it as a final appellate Court. Only Guyana and Barbados have gone that far. All sorts of reasons have been advanced for not following in the footsteps of these two, ranging from the supposed “free” access to the Privy Council to concerns about maintaining the independence of the judiciary. But a noted Caribbean legal luminary, former Governor of St.Kitts/Nevis, Sir Probyn Inniss, has come out strongly and called for the Caribbean to “get its house in order and do what it has to do” to establish its judicial independence from Britain.

Stating that “enough is enough is enough”, Sir Probyn advocated bold steps forward in setting the seal on a Caribbean-wide Final Court of Appeal, but opined that much effort will be needed to awaken our leaders from their slumber. It is not the competence of our judges which is in question, is his view, but rather our own lack of confidence in our own. He conceded that the CCJ has itself been a victim of partisan politics in the region.

The comments of Sir Probyn and Lord Phillips virtually call for severing the judicial umbilical chord to the Privy Council, and are both timely, given the current constitutional debate. The old bugbear of “not ready” must be cast aside for good. We cannot continue to hang on to the coattails of one whom we once mistakenly considered “our mother” but whom historical experience has proven otherwise. We must also disabuse ourselves of the mistaken notion that it is colonialism which has brought us “civilization”, and must stand proudly ready to proclaim our own Caribbean civilization of which the CCJ, as our Final Court of Appeal, is very much a part.