Teacher resigns to contest next General Election
Despite a court ruling against them in a similar matter, the Government has once again cited the Constitution to deny a request for “election leave” made by a teacher wishing to contest general elections.
Instead, this teacher, New Democratic Party (NDP) candidate of North Windward, Shevern Lewis-John, has resigned in order to fulfill her political ambitions.
This was revealed at a press conference held by the St Vincent and the Grenadines’ Teachers’ Union on Tuesday, October 20, nomination day.
It was explained that Lewis-John applied to the Public Service Commission (PSC) for leave and the PSC, through its Chief Personnel Officer, Arlene Sam, responded via a letter on October 12.
“I refer you to your letter dated 16 September in which a period of six months no-pay-leave was requested to enable you to contest the general elections of 2020,” Counsel Jomo Thomas, whose Chambers represents the Union, reads.
The letter then draws Lewis-John’s attention to section 26 (1) d of the Constitution of St Vincent and the Grenadines and to Representation of the People Act.
“Be guided accordingly,” the letter ends.
Section 26 (1) (d) of the Constitution says that no person shall be qualified to be elected or appointed as a representative if he/she holds or is acting in any public office.
Therefore, following the Constitution, Lewis-John had to resign in order to contest the general election.
The Chief Personnel Officer wrote to her once more saying “reference is made to your letter dated October 19, 2020, in which you tendered your resignation from the post of teacher five, Sandy Bay Secondary School, Ministry of Education, National Reconciliation, Information. Please be informed that your resignation is accepted with the effective date October 19, 2020.”
The state’s actions are not sitting well with the SVGTU and their legal team as they have taken the Government to court on a constitutional challenge in a similar matter related to three teachers who resigned in order to contest the 2010 general elections.
The court ruled in the teachers’ favour.
Lawyer Jomo Thomas was involved in the case concerning the teachers: Elvis Daniel, Addison Thomas, and Kenroy Johnson.
These three teachers were also impliedly denied election leave in much the same way as Lewis-John, i.e being referred to the Constitution.
However, the teachers were relying on a Collective Bargaining Agreement signed in 2005 between their Union and the Government, when they applied for leave.
Article 16 of the Agreement states that “a member of the Union of at least three years standing shall, on application, be granted leave-of-absence to contest national/general/local election. The leave of absence shall be no pay leave for a period not exceeding six months. In the event that the member is unsuccessful, that member shall return to his/her original post or one of the equivalent status, all benefits intact.”
The teachers’ lawyers argued in court that this article in the Collective Agreement did not offend section 26 (1) (d) of the Constitution. They also said that a legitimate expectation was created by this Agreement that they would be reinstated.
The Court of Appeal in a decision delivered by Justice of Appeal Davidson Kelvin Baptiste in January 2019, ruled that the article did not offend the Constitution and that a legitimate expectation had been created. Further that the teachers’ constitutional property rights had been breached.
The court noted that article 16 itself does not deal with the qualification to be elected as a representative, this is not in its purview.
Further, critically, the section they invoked from the Constitution allows for Parliament to prescribe exceptions and limitations to the disqualification.
The court ruled that the state pay costs, damages for breach of their property rights and that the three teachers have a right to their pension benefits. Two of the teachers are now pensionable, with Johnson having been so since 2010.
However, the state has yet to pay them any of the money ordered by the court, and a private citizen cannot apply for an enforcement against the crown.
In the case of Lewis-John, Thomas stated, “What that letter shows is that the Public Service Commission and indeed the Government of St Vincent and the Grenadines have not learned a single thing, or has not taken any of the pertinent, germane points which were made in the decision of our court.”
He cited many key parts of the ruling by the Court of Appeal.
“Had the individuals in the Public Service Commission, had its Chairman Blazer WIlliams, had its Chief Personnel Officer Arlene Sam, had the Attorney General of St Vincent and the Grenadines, had the Minister of Legal Affairs the honourable Ralph Gonsalves, had any of them read this decision of the court, it is evident that Miss Sam, would not have been directed to write a letter which she wrote,” the counsel stated.
Thomas noted that the letter was almost identical to the one written to the three teachers in 2010, except that Sam also cited the Representation of the People’s Act.
However, what the court had to say about the letter written in 2010 is that “the Chief Personnel Officer was in effect saying to them that as a public officer they were debarred from contesting the elections. The respondents (state’s) evidence that they did not refuse leave is unconvincing and unacceptable.”
“So having done this, two election cycles ago, for the same Public Service Commission, under the same Chairman, under the same Minister of Legal Affairs,” to write an almost identical letter, the counsel says “is clearly flouting the authority of the court.”
Further, the Government had years to pass a law, as provided in the same s 26 of the Constitution that they are trying to invoke, to allow for the exception of article 16 of the Collective Agreement.
“And failing to do that it clearly showed that it was making a mockery of the Union with which it signed a Collective Bargaining Agreement,” Thomas said, “It continues to laugh in the face of the workers who were members of the Teachers’ Union because it is essentially saying yeah, we signed a Collective Bargaining Agreement with you, but we have no intention, absolutely no intention of following it.”
As legal counsel for the SVGTU, Thomas stated that they find it “absolutely unacceptable.”
“Clearly the Government is setting itself up for another serious constitutional challenge, and based on the Court of Appeal’s decision, I think that they would have a very, very high hurdle to climb over,” the counsel concluded.