TODAY’S special sitting of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) in Antigua and Barbuda marks an important milestone for the court. While the ceremony in St John’s is ostensibly being held to commemorate the seven-year tenure of outgoing CCJ president Sir Dennis Byron, it is also indirectly an attempt to affirm the relevance of this judicial organ.
Sir Dennis’s tenure saw the court enjoy a period of relative stability, coming after a rocky period which saw various controversies involving statements by judicial officers as well as sundry reports which questioned judicial expenses. Still, when all of today’s felicitations are over, where next for the court?
The first matter will be the appointment of a new president once Sir Dennis’s term ends on July 3. But more crucially, what will the new president be appointed to lead? Today’s sitting is an opportunity for the CCJ to take stock.
Years ago, the court set out in a strategic plan to provide the people of the region with “accessibility, fairness, efficiency, transparency and authoritative judicial decisions” while promoting the rule of law in the Caribbean Community. However, it is questionable whether it has made enough inroads.
Questions remain over the workings of the regional judicial appointment body, as well as the trust fund which administers the court. Do these bodies have what it takes to earn the trust not only of member States but the key States – including Trinidad and Tobago – that are yet to sign-on to the CCJ’s appellate jurisdiction? The fact that the CCJ is yet to become the final court for several States is itself a sign that the answer to the questions above, unfortunately, remains no.
The court has also handed down decisions that have been criticised, for instance the Maurice Tomlinson case challenging archaic, colonial-era immigration laws. It is ironic, then, that those who argue for the CCJ as the region’s final court do so by appealing to the legacy of colonialism. They rightly point out the backward state of affairs that sees independent nation States rely on the UK’s Privy Council.
But politically the court remains caught up in partisan politics. When the Privy Council rules in favour of a political party, that party then finds favour with it. When the court rules against the party, there are calls for reform. The CCJ remains tied to the vagaries of power without regard for history and the need for regional solidarity.
So as the CCJ bids Sir Dennis farewell, we must also ask whether the court – which is anchored by a $600 million Caricom trust fund – is also embarking on a long goodbye? We hope not.