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Privy Council and SVG: Facts and conclusions

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by Camillo Gonsalves 16.OCT.09

Did you know that in the last 10 years, the Privy Council has only issued 10 judgments in cases coming from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines? Or that from 1996 – 2007, there were only 15 appeals to the Privy Council from our country? These facts, and others, have a significant impact on the debate surrounding our new Constitution and the removal of our remaining colonial shackles.{{more}}

Some of those opposed to the new Constitution have staked their opposition on a desire to retain the Privy Council as our highest court. These Privy Council-ites have based their position on a three-pronged argument: (1) they do not trust our courts and judges to deliver quality justice; (2) they view the Privy Council as a “free” service that we should not abandon; and (3) they view the Privy Council, one of Britain’s oldest institutions, as part of the “valuable legacy” of the British that should not be tampered with.

Supporters of the Constitution and of our home-grown Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) have responded by ridiculing the backward colonial mindset of those who would keep the Privy Council. We have pointed to the quality of the CCJ, its insulation from political mischief, and called passionately for our region to show some self-confidence and independence in crafting a Caribbean body of jurisprudence.

Very rarely in this argument, however, have the pro- and anti-colonialist positions been backed by any data. In the case of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, the data paints a very clear picture: that of a remote court, out of reach of most Vincentians, which is mainly a recourse to criminals facing the death penalty. Is this what the colonialists seek to retain?

 The Facts

According to the website of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (http://www.privy-council.org.uk/output/page5.asp), There have only been 15 appeals entered via Saint Vincent and the Grenadines from 1996 and 2007 (the last year for which data is available online). Over that 12-year period, six of the 15 appeals were allowed, six were dismissed, and another two were dismissed or withdrawn without a hearing.

Between 1999 and the present, the Privy Council has only issued 10 judgments in cases emanating from SVG, according to their website. Six of these 10 judgments were in criminal cases: Cardinal Williams (two judgments); Everad Nicholls; Newton Spence; Ken Charles; and Daniel Dick Trimmingham. All of these criminal cases were appeals of murder convictions and/or the death penalty.

The remaining four judgments were in civil cases: Yambou Development Co. Ltd. v. Sally Helena Kauser; Richard Joachim and Glenford Stewart v. The Attorney General and Ephraim Georges; Randolph Toussaint v. The Attorney General; and Treldon Connell v. Claribelle Connell and Marcelle Findlay. These civil cases run the gamut from contract and land disputes to the Ottley Hall inquiry.

The facts, therefore, are the following: As regards Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, we have only made 15 appeals to the Privy Council in the 12 years 1996 – 2007. More significantly, the Privy Council has averaged only one judgment per year for the last 10 years. Sixty percent of these judgments were in murder/death penalty cases. Only four cases involved Vincentians who were not convicted of murder.

The Facts vs. The Defenders of the Privy Council

The paucity of Vincentian cases reaching the Privy Council – particularly civil cases – suggests one of two possible explanations: Either (a) Vincentians are satisfied with the quality of justice that they receive from the Eastern Caribbean Court of Appeal, and see no need to go to the Privy Council; or (b) Vincentians cannot afford to go to the Privy Council.

Either of these two explanations – or a combination of the two – undercut the colonialist arguments about the quality of regional courts and the “freeness” of the Privy Council. If our regional courts were of low quality, or if the Privy Council was “free,” we would expect to see a lot more Vincentian cases going to England. But the fact of the matter is that, aside from murders, only four Vincentian cases in the last 10 years have benefitted from Privy Council judgments.

Of course, the Privy Council is far from free. A Vincentian in a civil case seeking justice from the Privy Council would have to fly herself and her lawyers from SVG to the UK. She would have to pay for hotel rooms in England for the duration of the arguments. She would likely have to retain a British lawyer as well, who has special expertise arguing in front of the Privy Council. How is this free? It is, in fact, the justice of the wealthy, thousands of miles and dollars out of the reach of ordinary people in this country.

When these facts are coupled with the regular statements of British Lords – Lord Woolf, Lord Browne-Wilkinson, and most recently, Lord Phillips – that the Privy Council does not want to be burdened by cases from our region, a more detailed and damning picture becomes apparent: that of a court that we hardly reach, that we cannot afford, and that does not want us.

Why would anyone fight to remain a part of this institution, particularly when we have a high-quality, well-funded, politically insulated alternative that will be far more accessible than the Privy Council?

The Facts vs. The “Valuable British Legacy”

The only remaining argument in favour of the Privy Council, therefore, is that it is one of the valuable legacies kindly left to us by our former British masters. The less said about this argument, the better, except for one important point:

The British themselves are moving away from the Privy Council.

On October 1 this year, the United Kingdom Supreme Court was opened. This court is now the final court of appeal in the UK, taking over from the House of Lords. According to the Supreme Court website (http://www.supremecourt.gov.uk/), this was done to “achieve a complete separation between the United Kingdom’s senior Judges and the Upper House of Parliament, emphasising the independence of the Law Lords and increasing the transparency between Parliament and the courts.”

Indeed, many parts of the Privy Council’s British jurisdiction, including “devolution matters under the Scotland Act 1998, the Northern Ireland Act 1988 and the Government of Wales Act 2006” have been transferred to the Supreme Court.

This, of course, begs the question: If the Privy Council is such a valuable legacy that Vincentians should retain, why are the British themselves reducing its role and “tampering” with its jurisdiction? Is it that we are striving to be more British than the British themselves?

In this day and age, in this independent nation, the fact is that we have no use or need for the Privy Council. The arguments for staying with the Privy Council are undercut by the facts, not to mention our national pride and independent spirit and Caribbean nobility.

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