Jan 13, 2022 Letters
Kaieteur News – When the interests of the public are impacted by unjust policies or actions of private entities, the people have a right to seek legal redress. The constitution grants the public this right thought it may not be expressly stated in constitutions. Lawyers went to courts to enforce this right in several countries establishing precedents that judges cite to make rulings. It is in this context that I suggest public interests litigation against Exxon. Public interests litigation empowers and protects the poor and downtrodden.
Public interest litigation is judicial action for protection of public interests. The court tolerates such judicial activism. The court itself is judicially active if it feels peoples’ rights are affected by policymaking or actions of others. It is not necessary for an affected person to file the litigation. Anyone can approach the court for redress. The court entertains the matter because of its importance to the public. The court can also take up the matter with a complaint and proceed suo moto on the petition of any public spirited person on any matter pertaining to the public like preventing fishermen from catching fish without justifiable reason and without offering compensation. The court will compel the defendant, if there is evidence, to respect the public’s rights and fine it/him/her if necessary.
Public interest litigation is known to be a vehicle for building jurisprudence of democratic countries especially India, US, UK, Canada, Australia, Trinidad and Tobago, etc. It is also a vehicle to enforce basic rights not stated in a constitution. Public rights are rights obvious to the eyes and meant to be included in a constitution but not clearly stated. Once the court rules in favour of the petitioners, those rights become law as though they are written in the constitution or legislated by parliament. Many such laws have come into being in the US through court rulings in public interest matters.
It takes a courageous lawyer in a third world country to file such cases. In Trinidad, Ramesh led the initiative in the 1980s. And when he became AG in 1996, he drafted several public interests laws like empowering the public to get information from the government that was a secret prior to his intervention. In Guyana, only a few lawyers have the testicular fortitude to challenge the status quo. I don’t know of any lawyer in Guyana who files public interests litigation. They are all fearful of the government, a fear that goes back to the emergence of Burnhamism right after the country gained independence in May 1966. Burnham abolished the Privy Council and no one challenged him. Burnham declared Guyana a banana republic and no one challenged him. Burnham rigged elections and he was not challenged. Burnham banned basic goods and there were no challenges. Burnham established national service and implemented kick down door banditry and so many other criminal acts and no one took him to task. Had lawyers taken Burnham and the governments to court, maybe Guyana would not have descended into a dictatorship. It was unlikely that the court would have ruled against Burnham. But we would not know unless he was challenged. Now, Exxon prevents fishermen from doing their trade in traditional waters affecting their career or basic living. That is a test case for public interests. Can Exxon prevent the fishermen from their catch without compensation? If a Ramesh were in Guyana, he would have already filed a class action against Exxon.
The fishermen and the poor have no money to challenge Exxon and powerful business or political interests. It is imperative that caring and compassionate lawyers take up their case. It is a no brainer for victory. And Exxon will have to pay court costs. I appeal to lawyers to please take up the fishermen case. Had I been a lawyer licenced to practice in Guyana, I would have done it pro bono (free). Such a case has far reaching implications. It could lead to Exxon forever compensating the fishing industry if it can be shown that the industry will not recover.
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