Paula-Mae Weekes to pursue plan to teach judges, lawyers

President Christine Kangaloo, left, and the country's sixth President Paula-Mae Weekes at a reception after Kangaloo took office on March 20.  - Ayanna Kinsale
President Christine Kangaloo, left, and the country's sixth President Paula-Mae Weekes at a reception after Kangaloo took office on March 20. - Ayanna Kinsale

Former President Paula-Mae Weekes said she intends to pursue her career of providing judicial legal education for judges and lawyers which she had planned before becoming the country's sixth president in March 2018.

On March 20, former Senate president Christine Kangaloo succeeded Weekes becoming the country's seventh president.

"I want to do some form of public service, but nothing that will confine me to certain hours and days,” Weekes said during a pre-recorded interview with Ardene Sirjoo which was broadcast on i95.5 FM on Friday,

Among the changes she was looking forward to was not having people around her all the time, as well as being able to do things spontaneously without having to give notice to a security detail.

“I will miss not having had to cook for the last five years, and not having to find my own parking space, but I will make that trade-off to get back my autonomy. I will be travelling more, and I want to go back to providing judicial legal education for judges and lawyers, which I had planned to do before becoming president."

After her retirement from the Judiciary as a Court of Appeal judge in 2016, Weekes had served as executive director of PMW Criminal Justice Consultancy and Training – a small outfit providing services geared towards the development of the criminal justice sector.

According to a foreword on PMW Criminal Justice Consultancy and Training, it aimed to provide training and consultancy services for the criminal justice sector, primarily for police officers, attorneys-at-law and judicial officers, both locally and regionally.

In the notice, Weekes referred to her 11-year career as a Court of Appeal judge where "it was my job to scrutinise the work of magistrates and criminal trial court judges for errors they might have made as they conducted trials. I operated at the penultimate stage of the criminal justice system."

The notice said before her elevation to the Court of Appeal, Weekes served as criminal trial judge for nine years where she "had the opportunity to observe the good, bad and ugly of criminal advocacy. My 20 years on the bench proved to be a mixed bag of satisfaction and disappointment at the workings of the criminal justice system, of which the court is an integral part.

One of the frustrations of my work on the bench was to see fatal errors that could have been avoided by simple, but effective, training of the stakeholders and minor tweaking of the system. Out of that frustration, PMWCJCT was born. It occurred to me that rather than correcting problems at the back end, it would be a better use of my knowledge and experience to attempt to prevent them in the first place. PMWCJCT’s mission is to provide coherent, holistic advice and training to the criminal justice sector. For too long training initiatives have been unfocused and piecemeal reducing overall effectiveness and resulting in low returns for the resources invested. While the training must, of necessity, be incremental, the overview and planning needs to be panoramic." Weekes also had a 11-year career as a public prosecutor at the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Words often misunderstood

During the radio interview, the former president said her words were often misunderstood, sometimes deliberately so, and she had often been accused of speaking above people’s levels of comprehension.

TT sixth President Paula-Mae Weekes during her inauguration in March 2018 at the Queen's Park Savannah, Port of Spain. - File Photo/Angelo Marcelle

Asked about concerns expressed about the length of time she took to speak out about certain issues, she responded, “The president doesn’t have a luxury of jumping out in front of a story, unlike commentators, politicians, or citizens. The president has to wait and see how the position evolves and then be careful, when a situation is politically charged, what are you going to say?

“We don’t want to inflame passions that are already there, we don’t want to put anything on the table that will be innocently or deliberately misunderstood or used in an agenda. We have to wait until the heat has died away, things have settled, and once all the facts have come out, then consider what to say. I’m not one for speaking for speaking’s sake. If you have nothing to say, why are you speaking? Simply because someone thinks you ought to be saying something? That is not my stance and has never been.”

She said she had developed experience in this area both from her religious background and her professional background and as a judge. Weekes served as the country's sixth president from March 2018 to March 2023.

Weekes said while many people associate the legal profession with politicians, as many politicians were lawyers, she had had no contact with politics before becoming president.

“I didn’t have a problem navigating the murky waters of politics. The way I operated the Office of President, there was no nexus between it and politics. The only contact this office has with politicians is the constitutional requirement that I consult with the PM and Opposition Leader in respect of certain appointments. There is nothing in constitution that says the PM and the President have to meet once a week, it doesn’t even say they have to meet, but when there would be a meeting requested by the PM or by me, we would sit and speak.”

She said her point of contact in dealing with government ministers was through the PM.

“If I needed to speak with the Finance Minister, I spoke with the PM and tell him I need to speak with the Finance Minister, and then I speak to the Finance Minister about something that has to do with this office directly. There were occasions on which I had to deal with the Office of the AG, that was handled by my director of legal services, with somebody legal there. I spoke to the AG about a matter on one occasion. I wrote to the Education Minister on one occasion because I wanted to do something to do with school children, but other than that no, it’s not a political interaction.”

CoP merit list controversy

Asked about the issue of the police commissioner's merit list fiasco, she said there was nothing about the matter that could not be found in the public domain. She said anyone who read the statement she issued would understand clearly what happened.

On August 11, 2021, then PSC chairman, Bliss Seepersad, withdrew the Order of Merit List, which she delivered to the President, naming former commissioner of police Gary Griffith as the top nominee for the post from the President's office. She did so after a meeting with the PM at President's House, where Rowley said he gave her a document, the Barrington Report which detailed issues relating to the granting of firearm users' licences under Griffith's tenure.

After Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar filed a motion in the Parliament seeking to remove the President in October 2021, Weekes, in a paid advertisement, said there was no political interference or breach of the separation of powers, and she did not violate any provision of the Constitution nor was there any misbehaviour in public office on her part.

She said, “I confirm that an Order of Merit List in respect of the Commissioner of Police was delivered on August 11, 2021 to the OTP and withdrawn almost immediately thereafter that day.

“I, therefore, had no list from which a notification could issue. To date no other list has since been submitted. The OTP has been advised that the recruitment and selection process for the Office of Commissioner of Police has not yet been completed.”

In the interview, Weekes said: “Long before any facts were out there, there was rabid speculation, it became a political issue, and noise, noise, noise in the atmosphere, so I suppose by the time the statement came, I suppose in this social media era, we want an immediate answer for something, and in the void of having an immediate answer, people came up with their own theories, and as they say most theories are conspiracy theories, and at the end of the day things became so heated it was difficult for people to read the statement in a vacuum and appreciate what was said there, but I don’t think there was anything else needed to be known to understand the circumstances.”

Asked how she would handle the situation differently, she said, “If circumstances are the same today as they were then, I would handle it the same way, knowing the things I knew, how the circumstances unfolded. There were no personalities involved at all, that question is what obscures the truth and what is important, because this had not one thing to do with personalities.”

Weekes said she could only think of one thing she would change, looking back over her term.

“In one instance, I made an appointment through the consultation process, and seeing how things went down the road, I may not have appointed that person. The president is not involved in the day-to-day affairs of the commissions. The only way in which commissioners are answerable to the president, is that the president can revoke their appointment, but that revocation comes with specific legal conditions.

“A president may not agree with actions or decision of a commission, they may think it needs to be looked at but they can’t interfere unless it falls foul of one of the specific provisions laid down. So yes, there was one case where I might have second thoughts about a particular appointment, but I suppose that’s why you have the consultation process, so that if the PM or Opposition Leader has any opinion on the matter they can bring those to the table and the president can consider the thing in its entirety. Other than that I can’t say there is any particular thing I would do differently knowing what I know now.”

She said she didn’t give personalities any consideration in handling these sensitive matters nor did she identify the office holder.

“That is to me the whole nub of the Office of President, to rise above all of those vagaries, to rise about what is going on in the public domain in terms of it influencing what you do and what you think and holding a steady fact-based objective centre.”

Charities left disappointed

Weekes said because she was the first woman president, people developed certain expectations about her without having any knowledge of her.

“They came up with a mythical, romanticised, mother figure, and as time went by they realised it was romanticised, something of a unicorn. I kept on smiling when people said former presidents did this or that, but I couldn’t find the historical fact. People just had ideas in their heads, where they come from, I can’t tell you.

“When there were cries on why the President didn’t speak out on Ashanti Riley and Andrea Bharatt, it was, you as a woman should have said, and, you as a woman should have done, and, you as a woman should have felt. I don’t suppose those are unreasonable or unrealistic expectations, but that’s a view. Whether or not I saw that, as a woman there was anything in particular that I should have done or should have done at a different time than a man would have done, I didn’t feel that or feel so.”

The murders of Riley and Bharatt between November 2020 and January 2021 sparked national outrage. Both young women were killed after they boarded taxis to take them to their respective homes. In both cases, suspects have been charged and their cases are pending before the court.

Weekes said another issue which came up was that the spouse of the president, who prior to her were all women, was supposed to do certain charitable things but as she had no spouse, several NGOs were disappointed and annoyed that she was not able to be their patron in addition to the duties normally assigned to the Office of the President.

Weekes said she felt many people were glad that she took politicians to task for their behaviour in Parliament.

“Every time they go there and speak and posture, people are looking and we will take pattern from our leaders. We have a Parliament channel that allows us to look on, and people/children will imitate their leaders, if they show hostility and vulgarity, people would emulate them. If they thought about that, they would realise it’s not a good look.”


"Paula-Mae Weekes to pursue plan to teach judges, lawyers"

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