In a quiet ruling last week, the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) in Port of Spain declined a judgement by Guyana’s Supreme and Appeal Courts on term limits for presidents in Guyana.
The CCJ’s ruling, a 6-1 majority, ended a challenge to term limits added to the constitution of Guyana in 2000. The case was brought by a private citizen, Cedric Richardson, who argued that the limits unfairly truncated his choices as a voter. The CCJ sensibly upheld a constitutional amendment decided on through a national referendum in Guyana. The ruling is important not just because of the clarification it brought to the Guyanese issue, but also because it provides a critical anchor of value for the CCJ itself.
It isn’t the first time this year that the CCJ weighed in on a significant matter in Guyana. In May, the CCJ made a hard ruling against the attorney general of Guyana in an engineering contract dispute that cost that nation’s state more than two million in hard US currency. Last week, the CCJ heard another case that’s likely to affect Guyana and the wider Caribbean, with an opportunity to set high level precedent on a matter of gender identity.
Heard via video conferencing, four men, admitted cross-dressers, asked the CCJ to hear a ruling by Chief Justice Ian Chang and upheld by the chancellor of Guyana’s judiciary that both men and women were free to cross-dress in public once it was not done for “improper purpose.” The men sought clarity from the CCJ on that vague term, which attracts a charge under a 1893 vagrancy law in Guyana. They also sought clarifications that would challenge constitutional savings laws which protect outdated colonial legislation from challenge.
The CCJ has reserved its ruling in the matter, and a considered statement from the court would send a powerful signal of tolerance and modernisation to those Caribbean states which have recognised it as the court of final appeal.
Regrettably, after 12 years, only three Caribbean nations constitute the appellate jurisdiction of the regional court, Barbados, Guyana and Belize.
In November, Antigua and Barbuda will hold a referendum on whether it will join the court’s jurisdiction. It remains a mark of shame for TT that while it hosts the court, it is not a signatory to the agreements that created it.
We still look to the UK Privy Council for its final rulings, despite pointed disinterest by England in being the court of last resort for Caribbean countries.
Bold, sensible rulings by the CCJ will provide an important benchmark of guidance that will serve to clarify the importance of Caribbean matters being shaped by Caribbean jurisprudence.