THE judge hearing the constitutional claim of former UNC senator, attorney Wayne Sturge, on the delay to hold meetings of the joint select committee on energy affairs, has ruled that the court has the jurisdiction to hear the matter although it involves a committee of Parliament.
In a written decision, Justice Ronnie Boodoosingh said Sturge’s claim before the court does not impact on the committee or when, where, how and what it should deal with, but allows the court to say whether there is a constitutional duty to call meetings at regular intervals.
Boodoosingh was asked to determine the issue of the court’s jurisdiction in the claim Sturge filed last November, in which he first asked for an injunction to temporarily stop the sale of former Petrotrin’s Pointe-a-Pierre refinery – now called Guaracara Refining Co Ltd.
In his injunction application, Sturge asked the court to order the chairman of the Joint Select Committee (JSC) on Energy Affairs, Finance Minister Colm Imbert, to convene a meeting of the committee. The injunction application was eventually withdrawn after dates were set for the hearing of the committee.
In his constitutional claim, Sturge complained that the committee did not meet for almost 20 months and had as “the singular subject of consideration” when it last met on February 21, 2018, the restructuring of Petrotrin. He sought declarations that the failure by the JSC chairman to hold a meeting of the committee for the last 19 months was unlawful.
The committee met on November 1, in camera, and again on November 20. In his decision, Boodoosingh pointed out that there was no order sought by Sturge to compel Imbert to call the meeting. It was argued that the court had no jurisdiction to review decisions made by a parliamentary committee and to hear the matter will “interfere with the dignity and efficiency of Parliament’s operations.”
However, Boodoosingh said based on what Sturge was asking for, it was not evident what adverse effect it would have on the dignity and efficiency of the operations of Parliament by answering the questions posed by Sturge.
Boodoosingh said the Constitution was supreme law and the court was the guardian of it. He also said, “There are different aspects of parliamentary privilege that arises from this, all intended to provide for the proper functioning of the Parliament.
“The privilege must be considered to be necessary to protect the independence and integrity of the Parliamentary process. One of the clear manifestations of the privilege is to preserve freedom of speech of members,” he added.
Reminding that at this stage all he was asked to determine was the court’s jurisdiction to hear the claim, the judge said the evidence by the Speaker, on whether Parliament had already given consideration to the affairs of Petrotrin or scrutinise its affairs, had nothing to do with what he had to first consider in the preliminary challenge raised in opposition of Sturge’s motion.
Boodoosingh said in his view, there was a difference between the procedures adopted by a committee, “which would fall within the ambit of parliamentary privilege,” and the omission to call the committee at all and if that failure amounted to a breach of the Constitution.
“This difference gives jurisdiction to the court to hear the present claim for the reliefs being sought,” he said.
In his decision, Boodoosingh set June 24 for a further hearing of the matter so that directions can be given on the filing of submissions on the substantive claim. The mode and location of the hearing will be determined at a later date.
Sturge was represented by attorney Gerald Ramdeen, Umesh Maharaj and Dayadai Harripaul while Fyard Hosein, SC, Rishi Dass, Kendra Mark and Amrita Ramsook represented the Attorney General. The Speaker of the House of Representatives was represented by Deborah Peake, SC, Ravi Heffes-Doon, Savi Ramhit and Dianne Katwaroo while Senior Counsel Martin Daly, Jason Mootoo and Nairob Smart represented the Finance Minister as chairman of the committee.