December 16, 2009

Commonwealth lawyers must ‘build on grand achievements of the past’ – Ramphal
Source: The
15 December 2009

Former Secretary-General calls for reform of Caribbean legal system during anniversary law lecture

Shridath ‘Sonny’ Ramphal, former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, used a lecture hosted by the Commonwealth Legal Forum last week to urge reform of Caribbean judicial structures.

Sir Shridath, offering his support to the newly-established Caribbean Court of Justice, called on Commonwealth countries with links to the British Empire to drop their right of appeal to the UK’s Privy Council, a centuries-old judicial and political body, warning that failure to do so would leave them “loitering on the doorstep of colonialism”.

He said: “Now that we have created our own Caribbean Court of Justice and done so in a manner that has won the respect and admiration of the common law world, it is an act of abysmal contrariety that we have withheld so substantially its appellate jurisdiction in favour of that of the Privy Council.”

‘Language, learning and law’

During the hour-long lecture to mark the 60th anniversary of the 54-member association, on 7 December 2009 at Marlborough House, London, UK, the Guyanese former Secretary-General touched on the abolition of slavery and the founding of the modern Commonwealth.

Sir Shridath, who served as Secretary-General between 1975 and 1990, said that “language, learning and law” were the three “most precious” elements of the association’s heritage.

But, calling on Commonwealth lawyers to “build upon the grand achievements of the past”, Sir Shridath hit out at the apparent “hesitancy” of Caribbean judges, lawyers and governments to support the Caribbean Court of Justice.

Just two Caribbean countries among 12 – Guyana and Barbados – have conferred the power of appeal to the CCJ, despite all signing a 2001 treaty establishing the court, he noted.

Sir Shridath, a former Attorney General of Guyana, meanwhile called on Caribbean governments to be “assiduous in demonstrating respect for all independent constitutional bodies”.

Death penalty issue

He added that the appeal court issue was further “complicated” by the issue of the death penalty, which is maintained by a number of countries in the region. Mr Ramphal said that the Privy Council had been “rigorous in upholding Caribbean appeals in death sentence cases”.

The Privy Council

Sixteen Commonwealth member states retain the UK’s Privy Council, a British body of political and judicial advisers to the UK head of state, as their final court of appeal. Appeal cases are heard by the council’s Judicial Committee, composed of senior British judges who also sit in the UK’s Supreme Court.

He continued: “Someday the Caribbean as a whole must accept abolition of the death penalty. I believe they should have done so already, but in a situation of heightened crime in the region popular sentiment has been reflected in political reticence.”

Sir Shridath’s comments follow those of Lord Phillips, Chairman of the Privy Council’s Judicial Committee and President of the UK’s Supreme Court, who in September attacked the “disproportionate time” he and fellow judges spend on Privy Council cases derived from Commonwealth countries.

‘An ideal world’

Lord Phillips, claiming that up to 40 per cent of the judges’ time was spent on Privy Council cases, said that “in an ideal world” such countries would instead establish their own courts of appeal.

Sir Shridath said that he backed Lord Phillips’ remarks, adding: “Many a Caribbean lawyer, many Caribbean persons, and at least some Caribbean government’s welcomed [Lord Phillip’s] urging.”

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