About Turn – No referendum

In a statement issued by the Office of the Prime Minister late on Sunday night, Persad Bissessar said that as regards the CCJ, “such matters are ideally suited for discussion at the level of the cabinet”.

It said that the announcement that the five-party coalition People’s Partnership government to accept the CCJ as the country’s final appellate court in respect of criminal matters has been “hailed as a positive step in the right direction by all and sundry”.

The Prime Minister said that ‘ if however, one of our member parties differs in their view one has to acknowledge this, but it does not automatically alter the government’s position.

“It was never a formal stated policy nor agreed platform of the People’s Partnership that a referendum be held prior to a decision on the CCJ so no issue of departure arises. Indeed, our constitution and laws make no provision for such a measure which would in itself require a constitutional amendment that can facilitate the holding of a referendum”.

“One must understand that as we embark upon the kind of major positive social shift and political change which the People’s Parnership brought with it, there will be intense debate from all quarters, both within and without the government. Change does that.

“The discussions taking place across the country today is evidence of the change the country voted for and of a healthy democracy at work,” the Prime Minister said in the statement.

Earlier, leader of the Congress of the People (COP) and Legal Affairs Minister Prakash Ramadhar said the party would accept full constitutional reform, not piecemeal reforming of legislation.

“We have stated our position that referenda are required and therefore there is no automatic guarantee that the COP will support any legislation to amend the Constitution in a piecemeal manner on a matter of grave national importance,” he said.

Ramadar said a matter such as the moving of criminal appeals from the Privy Council to the CCJ “cannot be done by a few persons sitting together and deciding upon it.

“Our continued existence is about consultation and indeed, this party has gone on record to say that matters of the removal of Privy Council or the death penalty should be by referendum and therefore, we stand by what we have said,” he told reporters.

The COP leader said the legislation to move criminal appeals to the CCJ has not been drafted.

“We came in—that is the PP—on a promise in our manifesto for constitutional reform. We think this is the grandest opportunity to move forward with constitutional reform that will include the right for referendum, so that the people of Trinidad and Tobago would have a say in this matter”.

Last week, Prime Minister Persad Bissessar told Parliament that her administration would introduce legislation to replace the London-based Privy Council as the island’s final court of appeal.

“Consistent with our approach of caution and gradualism, this country has not rushed to surrender the jurisdiction of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council but has rather kept the issue under constant review.

“It is perhaps fitting as we gear ourselves to celebrate what is essentially our golden anniversary of independence that we take another step in the furtherance of our national sovereignty now giving the Caribbean Court of Justice jurisdiction as our final Court of Appeal,” she said.

Trinidad and Tobago, like most of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries are signatories to the original jurisdiction of the Port of Spain-based Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) that was established by regional countries in 2001 to replace the Privy Council.

Only Barbados, Guyana and Belize are members of the appellate jurisdiction of the CCJ that also acts as an international tribunal interpreting the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas that governs the regional integration movement.

Persad-Bissessar told legislators that she was looking forward to bi-partisan support when the legislation is brought to Parliament since it would require a special majority.

The position is different from that announced by the Prime Minister on a visit to the United States last year when she told reporters the government would not tamper with the constitution “without hearing the voice of the people of Trinidad and Tobago and indeed during the election campaign, I did say it is something that we will have to have a consultation on with the wider population and not leave it up to five or 10 elected representatives to make such a fundamental decision in our constitutional structure.”

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