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Challenging the judiciary’s independence

Published: 
Sunday, December 24, 2017

On December 6, 2017, a group of unnamed judges were associated with an advertisement in the Newsday in which they supported the Chief Justice in an ongoing controversy involving his office.

They said in part:“It is unfortunate that the media often falls into the ‘trap’ of presuming that one or two or three judges speak for the bench.

The inescapable reality is that judges generally do not and ought not to speak to the press and protocol dictates that judges do not engage the media about the business of the Judiciary.”

The advertisement was signed “Group of Judges, Supreme Court, Trinidad and Tobago”.

This fact revealed to the public that the Judiciary is divided. This characteristic is not new.

Writing in the Sunday Express on February 13, 2005, in a column entitled “Regime Change Needed in Judiciary”, my UWI colleague, Prof Selwyn Ryan, had this to say about the Judiciary at that time:

“It is also clear that there continues to be a great deal of cronyism and jockeying for position within the Judiciary and that the brethren are as divided along ethnic and personal lines as they have been in the past.”

For those with insider information about the Judiciary, they will know whether these 2005 comments apply today.

The fact that a “Group of Judges” has chosen to go public with a statement that seems to contradict their own narrative insofar as they said that “…Judges generally do not and ought not to speak to the press….” is very instructive.

Taking an advertisement in a daily newspaper is engaging the press. The fact that this advertisement may have been placed by the Court and Protocol Information Unit of the Judiciary is even more alarming given that the advertisement itself said that “…and protocol dictates that judges do not engage the media about the business of the Judiciary…” which in itself is a challenge to the role of that unit in this matter.

The most disturbing aspect of this is what method of payment was used by the “Group of Judges” for this advertisement. Did they pay for this from their own pockets bearing in mind that they receive tax-free salaries that are guaranteed by the Consolidated Fund? Is this what tax-free judicial salaries should be used for?

In closing their advertisement the Group of Judges said:

“It is hoped that the false narrative referenced herein does not continue to perpetuate itself in the print and social media and by extension in the public domain.”

Surely the Group of Judges must have known that their statement would not end the controversies in the Judiciary, but would only heighten them. Also, they must be aware of the Reynolds Rules with regard to the right of the media to publish investigative material in the public interest because of the right of the public to know.

The Chief Justice finally broke his silence on December 15 after a stirring plea by the Law Association for him to do so. He said that the allegations against him were false.

The Guardian editorial the next day noted this as “a welcome development, despite the statement’s brevity”.

The Chief Justice may not realize it now, but the stories being printed about him are not going to go away.

His brevity and lack of engagement will only embolden the media to think that there is more to what is being said about him. Senior Counsel Martin Daly was particularly blunt about the Chief Justice when he spoke on CNC3’s The Morning Brew on December 15 and called on him to step down. Senior Counsel Israel Khan subsequently said that the Chief Justice should be shamed out of office.

For the Judiciary, this controversy will not go away as questions continue to swirl when only minimalist responses are being given.

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