The United Kingdom-based Privy Council on Thursday ruled that the move by Dr. Keith Rowley led the administration to extend the term of local government representatives by a year is unlawful.
In the ruling, the law lords upheld an appeal over the dismissal of a lawsuit challenging the move brought by political activist Ravi Balgobin Maharaj.
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In a majority decision, three law lords led by UK Supreme Court President Lord Robert Reed ruled that High Court Judge Jacqueline Wilson and the Court of Appeal got it wrong when they dismissed Maharaj’s case.
Two law lords agreed with the local courts and provided a dissenting judgment – this means that the government must call local government elections.
Those in the majority ruled that change in terms of representatives, as contained in the Miscellaneous Provisions (Local Government Reform) Act, which was passed by Parliament without the support of the Opposition, last year, could not apply to representatives elected in 2019.
They said that the Parliament should have used clear and unambiguous language to indicate so but it did not.
“If Parliament had intended to give the Government such a power, it is reasonable to expect that it would have done so expressly. The legislation does not do so nor does it appear that any consideration was given to this possibility in any of the steps which led to the changes made in local government by the 2022 Act,” said Lord Richards, who wrote the majority judgment
He and his two colleagues also rejected the Government’s suggestion that the change was a minor one.
“The continuation in office of elected representatives for a year, an increase of one-third in their term, without reference to the electorate does not seem to the Board to be modest,” he said.
In his lawsuit, Maharaj claimed that he became concerned after Rural Development and Local Government Minister Faris Al-Rawi hosted a press conference and announced the Government’s intention to proclaim certain sections of the legislation.
The sections of the legislation identified by Al-Rawi sought to increase the terms of councilors from three years to four years.
It effectively caused the deferral of the election, which would be due between December last year and March this year, had the amendment not been proclaimed.
Maharaj contended that Al-Rawi misinterpreted the effect of the legislation when he announced plans to apply it to incumbent councilors and aldermen as he claimed that it did not have a retroactive effect.
Maharaj’s case was dismissed by Justice Jacqueline Wilson last year before his appeal was rejected by the Court of Appeal in February.
Presenting submissions before the Privy Council in March, his lawyer Anand Ramlogan, SC, of Freedom Law Chambers, stated that Parliament should have clearly stated whether the amendment applied to local government representatives who were elected in late 2019.
“There must be a clear and unambiguous provision…There are no words in the amendment expressly permitting the extension,” he said.
He also pointed out that councilors, who did not anticipate the extension and who did not wish to continue to serve, could be fined TT$4,000 if they suddenly resign.
He also suggested that the extension affected citizens’ right to vote as they elected their representatives for a three-year period in the last election.
“When you vote in an election you elect someone for a fixed term,” Ramlogan said.
King’s Counsel Peter Carter, who appeared alongside Ramlogan for Maharaj, contended that local government elections are equally important as general elections for Members of Parliament, which take place every five years.
“Parliament cannot do that on a whim,” Cater said.
Responding to the submissions, Thomas Roe, KC, who led the legal team for the Cabinet and Al-Rawi, suggested that actions taken by the Government were permitted under the amendment.
“There was no challenge to Parliament’s right to make the change or the Cabinet’s power to partially proclaim it. The difficulty is to whom it applies,” Roe said.
He pointed out that there was no common law or constitutional right for citizens to vote in a local government election every three years as such was based on the legislation that was amended by Parliament.
“What Parliament confers, it can take away,” Roe said.
The Government was also represented by Senior Counsel Rishi Dass. CMC