By: Kiana Wilburg
Prior to the Tenth Parliament, there was only one legal challenge to the National Assembly. It was in 1965. The then Chief Justice, Harold Bollers, was very strong in condemning what he considered to be the interference of the courts in parliamentary business.
But based on the current actions of the court, it would appear that the courts see things differently now. And a worrying question floats to the surface. Does the court have the right to interfere in the business of the Parliament?
When this question was put to him, Speaker of the National Assembly, Raphael Trotman, asserted that he does not believe that the court should interfere to the extent it currently does.
Trotman recently referred Finance Minister, Dr. Ashni Singh to the Privileges Committee on a Motion moved by opposition Member of Parliament Carl Greenidge. The heart of the Motion was that the Minister had spent over $4B from the Consolidated Funds without the approval of the National Assembly.
Attorney General (AG) Anil Nandlall had responded to the Speaker’s action, stating that it is for the Courts to decide on constitutional matters and not a Committee of Parliament.
But in providing an explanation so that a better understanding of his decision could be had, Trotman said, that when Greenidge laid the Motion regarding Dr. Singh, he looked at it to see whether there was anything to suggest that the National Assembly had been in anyway disrespected, desecrated or bypassed.
He said he did not look to judge whether it was constitutional or unconstitutional.
“If the parliament says it is not going to give its approval for you to spend $10 and you go and you spend $12 dollars , you may say that the constitution gave you the right to do that but it does not mean that in the process you have not bypassed or disrespected the Parliament. It is like being the member of a club. Of course most clubs, if not all have rules.
If you go against those rules, based on your action you may contend that legally you were authorized to do so, but at the end of the day, there are the club’s rules which you did not adhere to and it can still sanction you. So I don’t share Nandlall’s views. But that apart, I think the House has a right and a duty to look into any matter where it feels that a member has brought it into disrepute or has disrespected its decisions or otherwise. This has to do with whether or not the rules of Parliament and the expectations of a member have been violated,” the Speaker stated.
In using Nandlall’s comments as just one point of reference, some members of the political opposition have opined that this is not the first time government has “run to the courts” or threatened to do so when it is “not pleased” with a ruling of the National Assembly. With this being a “developing pattern,” questions have arisen as to whether it is a contributing factor in the erosion of the supremacy of the Parliament.
In an invited comment, Trotman said, “I think the courts now are seeing things in a different way and it feels that it has the right to get involved and from time to time interfere. It is not something I am happy about. But being a lawyer, I believe in the rule of law. However, I feel the courts should be used especially in a situation like ours where you are literally in unchartered waters, constitutionally and otherwise.”
The House Speaker went further to state that the courts should be the guardian and interpreter of the constitution.
“But I think it is being used to take a side in an argument and that is my dilemma. We really need to have a properly constituted constitutional court where both government and the opposition or even me as a Speaker can ask for a view on a matter and it shouldn’t be in the form of a challenge; Govt vs Trotman etc. The National Assembly needs the advice and opinion of the court and it should do that and refrain from giving instructions to the Parliament,” Trotman asserted.
Many politicians and activists believe government has blatant disregard for the role of the Parliament and its Committees.
Greenidge who serves as the Financial Spokesman for the main opposition bloc in the National Assembly, A Partnership for National Unity (APNU), had said that Nandlall believes that he is “on to a good thing with the courts” and will no doubt milk that advantage for all it is worth.
“He tries to goad the Opposition parties to fight on a ground which he believes he has an advantage,” Greenidge opined.
“The Speaker’s action against Dr. Singh calls on the responsibility of Members of Parliaments (MPs) to respect the Assembly’s decisions. That respect cannot be dependent on whether the decision was based on a government or opposition-led majority,” Greenidge asserted.
Also of significance Greenidge said, is that only the National Assembly has the right to set rules and procedures governing its mode of work, including the disciplining of its members.
“The AG’s call for the courts to intervene is no doubt based on the unreasonable expectation that the Chief Justice (CJ) will remain the only judge taking these constitutional cases. The AG is inviting the CJ to decide that the courts can, in effect, exclusively or jointly discipline MPs and is yet another example of the erosion of the separation of powers.”
The Parliamentarian said that while the interpretation of the Constitution is the responsibility of the court, the indiscipline and contempt Dr. Singh showed the Assembly and the correct action to be taken for this behaviour, is not.
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