LAWYERS seem to rule the country.
By this we are not referring to the fact that a great many of our leaders have legal training. Rather, we mean that when it comes to disclosing the fees paid to attorneys who get state briefs, lawyers appear to call the shots – not Attorney General Reginald Armour, SC, not Cabinet and certainly not Parliament’s high-powered committees.
Or at least that is the impression left by exchanges between government and opposition members during last Friday’s Standing Finance Committee meeting.
At several stages, Barataria/San Juan MP Saddam Hosein asked Mr Armour for a breakdown of attorneys hired by the State, and of their fees; and the name of a senior counsel for whom a budget supplementation was sought.
Repeatedly, the Attorney General demurred, at various points saying: “If an attorney wishes to have his name disclosed, he would first be asked”; “I certainly will ask of that attorney whether he consents”; “I would first ask for permission”; “I would need to get the permission.”
When Mr Hosein expressed surprise at this, given the practice of Mr Armour’s predecessor, Faris Al-Rawi, House Leader Camille Robinson-Regis felt it necessary to supplement the reply. She said the former AG had previously told the House he would have to get the permission of attorneys before their fees were revealed, and that there was a lag between identities being revealed and exact sums being disclosed.
“That is in the public domain,” Ms Robinson-Regis said. “It is in the Hansard.”
But members of the public would be forgiven for having the opposite impression, especially given statements made by Mr Al-Rawi himself in the chamber. In July 2021, when he disclosed breakdowns and details, he said: “Contrary to the wishes of the vast majority of attorneys, this office has taken a decision to release the information.”
The former AG did, however, withhold the specific briefs for which these lawyers were retained. Not long before, he had also suggested details would be withheld and consent sought: but not due to a wish to serve the whims of lawyers, but rather because of concerns over cases being ongoing or sensitive. (As it turns out, this position was always highly dubious, since it cannot be news that a lawyer is to be paid.)
What is the real reason for lawyers getting special treatment? If a local contractor is to be paid for building a hospital, for instance, imagine the uproar if a minister refused to disclose the cost or the company’s name. So why do government members routinely push back on this issue?
If it is true that a behind-the-scenes procedure of seeking lawyers’ “consent” (as opposed to merely, possibly, serving notice) has by now been well established, such a procedure is a flagrant affront to the sovereignty of Parliament and an unreasonable fetter to the work of our MPs.