President of the Law Association of TT (LATT) Lynette Seebaran-Suite disapproves of political or governmental officials making unfounded accusations against the Judiciary.
She says LATT, however, has to be careful with its statements as it has a responsibility to remain neutral in politics.
Speaking to Sunday Newsday at her law office on Woodford Street, Port of Spain, Seebaran-Suite said, “There is a natural and healthy tension between the Judiciary and the Executive because the Judiciary has to pronounce on the actions of the Executive. But discourteous discourse is always bad and confusing to the public and verbal attacks on the Judiciary have the tendency to undermine our institutions, especially when those attacks come from people who hold high office.”
On May 1, National Security Minister Fitzgerald Hinds claimed that "criminals have friends in the Judiciary" after High Court Judge Devindra Rampersad ruled in favour of gun dealer Brent Thomas in a lawsuit which complained that his constitutional rights had been infringed. The judge also found Thomas was “abducted” by police in Barbados and brought back to TT.
Seebaran-Suite, 69, went on to explain that LATT was a statutory body created by the Legal Profession Act (1986) that governed and disciplined members of the legal profession. Quoting the law, she said, the association's mandate was to “represent and protect the interests of the legal profession in TT and to promote, maintain and support the administration of justice and the rule of law.”
As a result, she said LATT had a responsibility to comment on important constitutional and legal matters of the day, including important pieces of legislation that goes before the Parliament.
“With that we have to be vary careful to tread a fine line of neutrality and not to encroach into the political space. Although there is a great deal of pressure on the Law Association to take partisan political positions it is something we have to resist.”
She said it was sometimes criticised for not speaking out on issues but it had to be careful and could not participate in every discussion. It also waited until the facts were revealed before pronouncements were made.
“Also, it’s not the prerogative of the president of the Law Association to give personal views. The Law Association speaks through its council, a council of 19 people, so there must be a consensus or a majority position, before a position can be taken on public issues.”
She added that LATT recently started an initiative to act as a channel of communication between the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and the Attorney General (AG) over the issues of the accommodation and staffing for the Office of the DPP.
She said LATT already met with the DPP to determine his position and challenges, but had to postpone the meeting with the AG when her mother passed away earlier this month.
However, the association met with the AG on the issue of reintroducing software for the Companies Registry of the Registrar General's Department and planned to make courtesy calls to the Chief Justice (CJ) and the Caribbean Court of Justice.
The Prime Minister had accused the DPP of refusing to occupy a building at Park Street, Port of Spain rented for almost $600,000 a month for three years because of security concerns. Armour had instructed the DPP to relocate but a decision is yet to be made.
The award of silk
Seebaran-Suite explained the appointment to senior counsel was a throwback to colonial days when most powers in the colonies were held by the Queen’s representatives.
“It’s not even hard law or anything in the constitution which provides that the governor general had all the power
and, after we gained our independence, these powers devolved onto the Prime Minister.”
She said the PM had no responsibility to consult with anyone, but it was now practise that the PM consult with the CJ and other stakeholders.
“A process had started before my incumbency of discussions with the AG as to how the imminent appointment of senior counsel was to take place. He, as the titular head of the legal profession, is very open to the process that has been recommended in a report prepared by the Law Association in 2017.” Armour was then LATT president.
The report requested the process of the appointments of senior counsel be more transparent. It said the decision should not be that of the Executive – president (chief of state), prime minister (head of government), or Cabinet – but should be managed by an independent committee, possibly headed by the CJ.
“It is best for that process to be transparent and to be based on fixed criteria so that applicants feel they are treated equally.”
She said there were criteria to apply but many people fit the criteria which included having conducted important cases, length of experience, eminence in knowledge of the law, recognition of public responsibilities, recognition by the bench and the general bar of their excellence, and more.
The issue was with the selection process and she questioned the need to limit the number of people appointed, although she said this year was an improvement with 18 people given silk.
There was objection raised by members of the legal fraternity, the Opposition, and other sectors after the President's husband, Kerwyn Garcia, the President's brother Colin Kangaloo, the Prime Minister's personal lawyer Michael Quamina, were among those who were awarded.
Seebaran-Suite said while the AG was open to reform, he was subject to the decision of the PM and Cabinet. So after she and two other LATT council members recused themselves from the process as they were silk applicants, the AG shared the list of 57 applicants.
The members said they would not comment on the merits of individual applicants but instead asked to speak to the PM about the reform of the process. She said they were rebuffed by the PM who said he would not be speaking to them at that time and that he was “bound” by the current arrangement.
On the appointment of the President's husband and brother, she said, “There was no real outrage or condemnation of the choices among the public or the Law Association about the merits of the appointees. It was unfortunate that the optics of the situation created an issue. The President of the Republic has certain formal and ceremonial functions. So she did not choose any person to be senior counsel. She merely was the vehicle for the conveyance of the instrument so there was no substantive conflict of interest.”
Seebaran-Suite, who was called to the bar in 1977 and specialises in family law, was appointed senior counsel on May 12 and became president of LATT on April 4.
She said she was very proud of her LATT presidency even though people thought she was crazy to put herself up for the position.
“It’s a difficult job but someone has to do it. Why not me who has such a long history in the legal profession and the law association?”
In 2012, she was given a national award for Women in Development, Gold, in the field of law and in November 2021, an honorary doctor of laws by the University of the West Indies.