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No ‘mayhem’ in legal challenges

Published: 
Friday, June 9, 2017
Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley during yesterday's post cabinet press briefing at the Diplomatic Centre in St Ann's

In reflecting on recent decisions of the Court of Appeal in cases involving the appointment of judges and the submission of property tax forms, Prime Minister Keith Rowley on Wednesday accused members of Opposition of identifying the courts as a place to go to “create mayhem and disturbance.”

And he also accused the Opposition, the United National Congress (UNC) of using the courts “to create chaos,” while vowing that the Government would fight all the way to T&T’s final court, the Privy Council, “if it’s a challenge to Government’s authority to govern T&T or to protect the public interest.”

As the leader of the party that forms the Government in T&T, Prime Minister Rowley has an absolute right to argue that the Opposition has transferred the political contestation of Parliament to the courts.

The prime minister also has a right, even a responsibility, to use the resources of the State, to defend his administration’s ability to collect the property tax in a way that allows the population to have an input in advancing what they believe is an appropriate rental value for their properties.

But, in accusing the UNC of intending to create “mayhem and disturbance,” Dr Rowley may have used language that is excessively robust as his political supporters may perceive that he is challenging the Opposition’s right to use the courts to get judicial interpretations of Government’s actions.

On reflection, and as one of T&T’s longest serving parliamentarians, the prime minister would acknowledge that each and every citizen of this country has the right to challenge government’s actions through the courts of the land.

That right to seek legal redress is enshrined in T&T’s Republican Constitution as one of the fundamental human rights and freedoms that “have existed and shall continue to exist, without discrimination by reason of race, origin, colour, religion or sex.”

The right to seek legal redress is encapsulated in the Constitution as “the right of the individual to equality before the law and the protection of the law.”

The ability of the individual to challenge governmental action is one of the ways in which democracies ensure that the people who are elected for a five-year period to manage the affairs of the country remain answerable and accountable to the people on issues, large and small.

Any government that is sensitive to the need for transparency and accountability in the exercise of its powers should welcome the judicial interpretations that come from the legal challenges brought by individuals—even if those individuals have a clearly expressed political objective—once those challenges do not unduly fetter the government’s execution of its policies.

And clearly that is the outcome in the property tax matter.

Moving with unusual alacrity, the Court of Appeal settled that the Valuation Return Forms the Government is using to collect information on residential properties across the country must be entirely voluntary and would not attract sanctions or penalties for non-compliance.

The Court of Appeal also directed that the Commissioner of Valuations must publish notices in all three daily newspapers outlining the voluntary nature of the submission of information in the Valuation Return Forms.

In a real sense, the ruling of the Court of Appeal provides a victory for both the Government and the Opposition. The administration gets to resume the collection and processing of the Valuation Return Forms while the Opposition would perceive that removing the penalty for non-submission of the forms is a victory.

It is also clear that the legal system, in and of itself, has the ability to provide checks and balances against abuse by overly zealous individuals or parties. If the matters brought by the Opposition have absolutely no merit—if the cases are frivolous and vexatious—they will get thrown out in short order either by the high court or on appeal.

And then the Opposition can be accused of wasting the courts’ time or attempting to grind its political axes by hiding behind judicial coat-tails.

In a real sense, the ruling of the Court of Appeal provides a victory for both the Government and the Opposition. The administration gets to resume the collection and processing of the Valuation Return Forms while the Opposition would perceive that removing the penalty for non-submission of the forms is a victory.