KINGSTON, Jamaica — A growing number of political leaders in the English-speaking nations of the Caribbean are pushing to replace the London-based Privy Council with a regional appeals court of last resort.
Safiya Ali, general counsel of the 15-nation Caribbean Community, said April 26 that recent moves by prime ministers to end reliance on the colonial-era British court for appeals is providing momentum for the long-debated transition to the Caribbean Court of Justice.
The most recent public statement in support of the change came April 25, when Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar said her administration was preparing legislation that she hoped would allow the Caribbean court to hear all her country’s appeals in criminal cases.
“Time and again we have heard comments to the effect that the (Privy Council) is out of sync with the times and our independence and should be replaced with a regional court of last resort,” Persad-Bissessar said in her capital city Port-of-Spain.
Leaders of former British colonies in the region complain the London court has stymied attempts to hang convicted murderers, frustrating what local governments say is a popular demand to crack down on criminals. They also say embracing the regional court is about sovereignty and severing outdated ties with the former colonial overlord.
Several human rights groups and other death penalty opponents have expressed concerns that the Caribbean Court of Justice would be a “hanging” court.
Capital punishment is on the books across the English-speaking Caribbean and local authorities say it is a logical way to curb violent crime. But the Privy Council has ruled that sentences must be commuted to life in prison if the condemned are not executed within five years — a window some consider unreasonable because the appeals process is so slow.
Pamela Elder, head of Trinidad’s Criminal Bar Association, told Trinidad Express Newspapers that she believes concerns that the Caribbean court would rubber-stamp executions are unfounded.
“That is an awful perception and one that is not grounded in reality. For someone to say that, what they are doing is casting aspersions on the integrity, character and professionalism of the judges,” she told the paper.
Supporters of the Caribbean court point to other former British colonial outposts such as Canada, which abolished its Privy Council links in 1949. Other former colonies such as Australia and New Zealand have done the same.
Jamaica’s Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller said earlier this year that replacing the Privy Council would “end judicial surveillance from London.”
The leaders of Grenada, Dominica and St. Lucia also have voiced support recently for the regional court.
Ali said there is a “growing confidence” in the region for the Caribbean Court of Justice which heard its first case in 2005.
“This means that we will be well on the way to meeting the vision behind the court,” she said from Guyana, where the Caribbean Community has its secretariat.
So far, though, only Barbados, Guyana and Belize have officially made the switch from the Privy Council which has served as the final appellate court for former British colonies in the Caribbean for nearly 200 years.
Both Simpson Miller and Persad-Bissessar said joining the switch would be an important milestone as both Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago will celebrate 50 years of independence from Britain this year. Both countries are also struggling to dismantle gangs and fight levels of violent crime that were unthinkable when they achieved independence.
In Grenada, Prime Minister Tillman Thomas told The Associated Press that his country is fully committed to the Caribbean court. Lawmakers are ironing out constitutional changes and expect to hold a referendum to decide the matter.
“We are putting all the necessary measures in place,” Thomas said.
Opponents worry the switch will be too expensive and say Caribbean courts don’t have adequate checks on power. In St. Vincent, for example, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves has legal affairs, national security, finance and economic planning under his portfolio.
Photo: Portia Simpson Miller