There is every indication that the Caribbean trade bloc nation of Jamaica will shortly dump the British Privy Council as its final court of appeal and switch to the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), even as the island’s main opposition party continues to be ambivalent about this bold step.
While in government before losing the late December 2011 general elections to Portia Simpson-Miller’s People’s National Party, the Jamaica Labor Party (JLP) appeared to reverse its traditional opposition to the CCJ. Recent noises from its leader, Andrew Holness, are pointing in the other direction.
But as the island prepares to observe 50 years of independence from Britain on Aug. 6, government officials have been forced to go on the defensive to refute the JLP’s claims that a referendum is needed to effect the change. If adopted, criminal and civil appeals would be heard by the Trinidad-based CCJ, either at its home base or where a case is being heard when judges decide to temporarily take the court to a territorial jurisdiction.
Foreign Minister A.J. Nicholson argued that none of Britain’s former colonies, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Belize, which have all delinked from the British court in recent years, used costly referendums, so the cabinet is at a loss as to why the JLP has been demanding that one be held to bless the move.
Nicholson contended this week in an official government bulletin on the issue that the opposition and others pushing for a referendum just months after the December general elections “wish for Jamaica to go where all others before us have feared to tread,” noting, “A referendum is, in essence, a general election, with a political campaign being the axis on which it spins. No country within the Westminster system of government has wished that matters relating to its judiciary be subjected or exposed to the political hustings.”
Set up in 2005 by Caribbean governments, the CCJ has struggled to attract members from the 15 nations in the community, with only Guyana, Belize and Barbados signing on to its civil and criminal appeals component, triggering criticisms about judges having too little to do. The constitutions of many Caribbean countries demand referendums and up to a two-thirds parliamentary vote in favor of delinking from the court, but recent research has shown that a divorce agreement with the court might well suffice instead of a costly and divisive referendum.
Trinidad, where the CCJ is based, which, ironically, is not a member, has also signaled its plans to join. The oil- and gas-rich twin island republic with Tobago will also celebrate 50 years of independence in late August and, like Jamaica, thinks the time has come to cement its sovereignty by subscribing to a regional court rather than leaving decisions to judges nearly 5,000 miles away.
Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and Simpson-Miller, the only two women heads of government in the regional bloc, jointly announced their plans to come on board after an extensive discussion in Suriname in March.