Sunday 30th July, 2006

 
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CJ in limbo still casts long shadow

The “measured action” promised by the President on Tuesday, as he determined to take the lead in resolving difficulties between the judiciary and the executive, actually required a first move by the Chief Justice.

Chief Justice Sat Sharma made that move. He communicated his decision not to preside in court until his own matter had been adjudicated. This gave the President the opening. President Richards promptly suspended the Chief Justice, citing his stated inability to discharge functions of the office.

The immediate appointment of acting Chief Justice Roger Hamel-Smith, able presumably both to preside in the Appeal Court and to head the judicial administration, marks a welcome break in the logjam of uncertainty.

It could never have been tenable for a Chief Justice, against whom criminal charges had been preferred, to function as a judge, no matter how unrelated the matters coming before him might be.

Still, the President’s suspension went further than Mr Sharma expected. In the normal course of work, the Chief Justice could choose which cases to hear; and Mr Sharma had anyway delegated the power to decide which cases would go before which judges.

Such arrangements still leave a Chief Justice with a large portfolio. He is top administrative functionary in the judiciary and chairman of the Judicial and Legal Services Commission.

The Chief Justice also heads the national awards committee, which processes nominations and recommends a list of deserving choices for approval of the Prime Minister. As an ex officio Trinity Cross himself, the Chief Justice takes his place in the high official line-up at President’s House on August 31, when the head of state delivers the awards.

Will the acting Chief Justice take over the screening and evaluation of national awards nominations, assuming that work is still in progress? The top national award, the Trinity Cross, is scheduled for replacement or amendment, and the Chief Justice might be expected to have some role to play in the transition.

The show must go on; the business of the state must proceed. But the Sharma shadow can be expected to fall over the events certainly of the coming weeks. Those could well include the ceremonial opening of the law term and the opportunity of a national platform usually taken by the Chief Justice to pronounce on judicial and related affairs.

An acting Chief Justice will be on stage, and the substantive office holder somewhere in the wings on suspension. T&T will be the setting for a rare drama of public affairs, which the much used word, “unprecedented,” is inadequate to capture.

Languishing in limbo, suspended Chief Justice Sharma is not helpless. Litigation related to him will keep the courts busy between the Hall of Justice here and the Privy Council in London.

One spin-off issue has already defined itself: who has responsibility for the heavy legal bills inevitably incurred? Is that for the account of the private Mr Sat Sharma, or will it be the state picking up the tab for the public office holder, Chief Justice Sharma?

A related concern is about what terms and conditions apply to a Chief Justice on suspension. Will he still be entitled to pay, and to which benefits?

For the suspension, and the appointment of an acting CJ, the President will claim justification on the basis of the need to rectify ills, including declining public image, of the judiciary.

The public must hope that, in prosecuting this aim, the substantive Chief Justice will not be reduced to the status of common felon, about breaking down whose door, for example, Commissioner Trevor Paul’s police will no longer feel restraint.

 

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