Privy Council told: Delaying local government polls affront to democracy

Political activist Ravi Balgobin-Maharaj.
Political activist Ravi Balgobin-Maharaj.

GOVERNMENT’s move to extend the term of local government representatives and postpone the polls by a year had implications for democracy, five law lords were told on Wednesday, in the challenge by political and social activist Ravi Balgobin-Maharaj.

After a full day of submissions from Balgobin-Maharaj’s legal team, comprising Peter Carter, KC, and Anand Ramlogan, SC, the five law lords – Lords Reed, Hodge, Briggs, Kitchin, and Richards – reserved their decision.

Reed, president of the Supreme Court of the UK and president of Wednesday’s panel, acknowledged there was still a “sense of urgency” in the matter and while not able to give an immediate decision “here and now,” he assured it would be “as soon as we can.”

Reed also raised “hypothetically” what would happen next if they were to allow Balgobin-Maharaj’s appeal. He said after a decision, the parties would be invited to advance submission on the terms of the order they would make, since “elections cannot be held at the drop of a hat.”

In February, after he lost in the Court of Appeal, Balgobin-Maharaj petitioned the Privy Council, which set March for hearing the challenge – the month the polls should have been held if not for the legislative change.

Passed by a simple majority in 2022, the Local Government Reform Act, which contains amendments to the Municipal Corporations Act, allowed local government elections to be delayed by a year. Whether it applied to individuals elected before the law came into effect was one of the issues raised before the Appeal Court – which said it did – and the Privy Council.

The election was due between December 4, 2022, and March 4, 2023, but the partial proclamation of local-government reform legislation allowed the extension of the terms of councillors and aldermen to four years. Balgobin-Maharaj’s attorneys argued this was an affront to democracy and should not have been retroactive.

“It was carefully calibrated at the 11th hour,” Ramlogan argued.

Carter provided a historical context of local government in Trinidad and Tobago.

King’s Counsel Thomas Roe, who represented the Government, said there was no ambiguity in the law or the amendments.

Roe insisted what was done was legally permissible. He said it was “unrealistic” to say the one-year postponement struck at the heart of democracy.

He also submitted that it was accepted that Parliament could change the duration of the tenure of elected councillors, as had happened before in TT, calling the amendment a “modest alteration.”

“There is a difficulty in appealing to notions of the constitutional importance of the right to vote on statutory construction.”

In response to Roe’s submissions, Ramlogan said Parliament did not express whether the amendments applied to incumbent councillors or those in the future.

He said even if there was no vested right to vote in local government elections, the question of fairness arose.

“Parliament cannot by a side-wind take away the right to vote in local government elections.”

Balgobin-Maharaj had applied for permission to judicially review the decision of the government and for a temporary order to prevent councillors elected in 2019 from continuing in office for another year.

His application was dismissed and the Appeal Court dismissed his challenge on the substantive issues, after which he petitioned the London court.

In his lawsuit, Balgobin-Maharaj is seeking declarations to stop the alleged government plan to postpone the elections and that any attempt to do so by retrospectively applying the Municipal Corporations Act amendments would be a fraud committed on the electorate, in bad faith, and would amount to improper use of the legislation.

Balgobin-Maharaj is also asking the court to quash the declaration that the elections are now due between December 4, 2023, and March 4, 2024, and the decision to extend the terms of office of councillors and aldermen.


"Privy Council told: Delaying local government polls affront to democracy"

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