By Andre Bagoo Friday, September 21 2012
PRIME Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar last night announced the dismissal of Minister of Justice Herbert Volney, accusing him of “serious misrepresentation” to the Cabinet in relation to a note in which he requested the early proclamation approval of Section 34 of the Administration of Justice (Indictable Proceedings) Act on August 9.
The Prime Minister said she had decided to take this course of action after holding a meeting – and receiving a written report and notes from Chief Justice (CJ) Ivor Archie, as well as Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Roger Gaspard SC on Wednesday, in the course of conducting her own inquiry into representations made by Volney to the Cabinet on August 9 that he had consulted both men on the early proclamation of Section 34.
At the same time, the Prime Minister took no action in relation to Attorney General Anand Ramlogan, the Cabinet member in charge of the administration, and appointed Tobagonian Christlyn Moore, an attorney who held a brief for Ramlogan, as the new Minister of Justice. The Prime Minister said the entire Cabinet approved the early proclamation of Section 34 on the assurance given by Volney at the Cabinet meeting of August 9 that the Chief Justice and DPP had been consulted and supported the measure. However, after her inquiry, it was clear this was false.
“All ministers have a sacred duty and responsibility to the Cabinet,” she said at the Diplomatic Centre, St Ann’s. “In seeking to persuade the Cabinet to approve his/ her note, a minister has a duty to present his case objectively and accurately in the knowledge that the Cabinet will act on his assurances and representations. The Cabinet is entitled to rely and act upon the statements made. It influences, informs and guides the deliberations of the Cabinet on the particular issue.”
She continued, “The Cabinet, in reliance upon the assurances by the Honourable Minister of Justice regarding the support of the Honourable Chief Justice and the DPP for the measures contained in his note to Cabinet, approved the early proclamation of Section 34 and the subsequent proclamation of the rest of the Act on January 2, 2013.”
She said Volney, “had a duty to faithfully and accurately represent the position and views of the Honourable Chief Justice and the DPP. He failed to do so and the Cabinet relied and acted on his assurances in good faith. His failure to do so is a serious misrepresentation and amounts to material non-disclosure of relevant facts to the Cabinet which effectively prevented it from making an informed decision.”
She said she had a meeting with Volney yesterday and he admitted that he had “erred”.
“I held a formal and candid meeting with Minister Volney today who has admitted that he erred,” she said.
She said at the Cabinet meeting of August 9, she specifically asked Volney if he had consulted both men.
“On August 6, 2012 the Honourable Minister of Justice tabled a note before the Cabinet which sought Cabinet’s approval to proclaim the Act with effect from January 1, 2013,” she said. “The note also sought approval for the early proclamation inter alia, of Section 34 on the basis that it was necessary to, ‘facilitate a seamless operational transition and … give authority for the recruitment and appointment of Masters of the High Court by the Judicial and Legal Service Commission in order that the Act may be operationalised on its effective date of January 1, 2013.’”
She added, “I specifically inquired of the Honourable Minister of Justice whether the Honourable Chief Justice and the DPP were consulted on these measures.”
“The Honourable Minister of Justice drew my attention to paragraph five of the note, which stated that the Honourable Chief Justice had been consulted on the date for proclamation. He then confirmed to the Cabinet that he had the support and approval of both the Chief Justice and DPP on this matter.”
“The approval, by the Cabinet, of this piecemeal proclamation was therefore predicated and based on the assurance and understanding that the judiciary and DPP were adequately consulted and fully supported the earlier implementation of this measure as a precursor to rest of the Act coming into force on January 1, 2013.”
Thus, just as Volney entered the political arena in controversy in 2010, when he abruptly left the Bench in order to contest the St Joseph seat, he now leaves Cabinet embroiled yet again. Throughout his brief tenure as Minister of Justice, Volney exchanged barbs with the Judiciary and had, at one stage, attacked the sitting Chief Justice in a Parliament debate. Yet the Opposition yesterday questioned why the Prime Minister failed to take any action in relation to the Attorney General. The Prime Minister said he had nothing to do with the proclamation of the Section 34 and suggested a foreign trip in early August may have meant he was not aware of all developments. The Prime Minister outlined the process by which a law is proclaimed.
“In accordance with the established practice and procedure, a Cabinet minute was subsequently issued directly to the Chief Parliamentary Counsel for the preparation of the draft proclamation. This draft is then sent from the CPC to the Cabinet Secretariat for onward transmission to the Office of the President,” she said.
“I have spoken to the CPC and he has confirmed that the Honourable Attorney General did not participate in this process because conventionally, the Office of the CPC independently liaises with the Cabinet Secretariat and the Office of the President on such matters. I pause also to note that the AG was away on vacation during the period July 20 to August 4.”
Volney is the eighth Cabinet minister to be fired by Persad-Bissessar in two years. Minister in the Ministry of National Security Collin Partap was fired last month after being stopped by police outside a nightclub and delaying a breath test.
At her briefing last night, the Prime Minister took no questions. In her address, she admitted the new Section 34 might be “bad law” but did not offer an explanation for how or why the section was inserted into the legislation; or why the Cabinet –including the Attorney General–appeared to not appreciate its implications by August 9 when Volney sought its early proclamation.
She also gave no reason for why the partial proclamation was never announced and failed to respond to claims made by Minister of Legal Affairs Prakash Ramadhar this week. Ramadhar on Tuesday said he raised the alarm in the House of Representatives on December 9, 2011 but was assured by unnamed Government officials that the legislation would not be proclaimed.
The Prime Minister made her statement at a long-awaited briefing at the Diplomatic Centre, St Ann’s which started just at about 7.30 pm. For more than a week, she had remained silent over the issue of Section 34. All Cabinet and non-Cabinet members of Government were made to pack the media briefing room, in a sign of the Government’s acute awareness that it needed to put on a show of strength and support amid what has arguably been a damaging scandal.
The Prime Minister sought yesterday to stave-off the impression that the Government may have acted to favour party patrons accused of crimes.
“The section targeted no particular person,” she said. “It was not designed to protect any section or interest. It was a development measure in the administration of justice for the benefit of all persons who found themselves falling within the provisions as agreed to by Opposition, Independent and Government benches of the Parliament.”
She continued, “It is important to remember that Section 34 could never have been proclaimed; would never have been proclaimed at any time had it not been unanimously approved in the Parliament and in the Senate. So here we are. It was the Parliament and not the Government which approved this particular Act and not this particular Section.”
The Prime Minister added, “I want to say outright and I reject and dismiss the idea that Section 34 was passed as part of some grand conspiracy designed to benefit certain individuals. Such a conspiracy would necessarily have to involve Government, Independent and the Opposition benches.”
“If were indeed by all who approved, that kind of accusation in my respectful view is very fanciful as well as incredible: to argue that the Government Opposition and Independent benches got together in some grand design to unanimously pass the bill including the amended Section 34.”
She criticised the Opposition, implying hypocrisy.
“The Opposition to this moment has refused to acknowledge that whether Section 34 is proclaimed now, then or later, their support of it—and indeed that of the Independent senators — cannot be ignored. If Section 34 was bad now it would have been bad January next year or thereafter, notwithstanding the fact that early operation should never have occurred,” she said.
The Prime Minister had, on Wednesday, said she would speak to the media after the weekly Cabinet meeting and had been expected to make a statement in the afternoon. On Wednesday, she said in a statement that she had chosen to remain silent on the issue to avoid “injudicious premature commentary”. She made no statements in Parliament last week where the matter was subject to full debate by her ministers in both Houses. Though she engaged in cross-talk with the Opposition (in one instance asserting there was “no conspiracy or collusion” in relation to Section 34) she did not formally address the Parliament or the nation on the matter. She also did not issue a statement, as she did on Wednesday, informing the nation of her deliberate choice to remain silent or the reasons for her caution. The late briefing last night was the third time in the last five months that the Prime Minister has opted to address the nation late in the evening at a press-briefing to deal with matters of national importance.
On July 30, the Prime Minister held a press briefing at 7pm in order to announce the resignations of Commissioner of Police Dwayne Gibbs and Deputy Commissioner Jack Ewatski and to express her confidence in National Security Minister Jack Warner, after a ruling of the Court of Arbitration for Sport made damaging findings. That briefing came after an “emergency” Cabinet meeting. On May 2, the Prime Minister announced that no minister in her Government had been fired and that the PP coalition was intact, after the Congress of the People called for a referendum on the question of the adoption of the Caribbean Court of Justice as the final court of appeal for criminal matters. That briefing also came after an “emergency” Cabinet meeting. Last Tuesday, the Office of the Prime Minister said a statement was due to be made at 7 pm after it was reported that two UNC patrons had filed applications to the High Court asking to have years-old Piarco charges dropped under Section 34 of the Administration of Justice (Indictable Proceedings) Act. The Attorney General, and not the Prime Minister, addressed the nation that evening, also after an emergency Cabinet meeting called by Persad-Bissessar hours after Government announced it was convening Parliament. Things were tense leading up to yesterday’s Cabinet meeting. Hours before the meeting took place, Volney was asked on Wednesday to respond to Ramadhar’s claim that the controversial new version of Section 34, which he inserted into the law and later moved to ask Cabinet to proclaim in isolation, was never referred to the Cabinet’s Legislative Review Committee. Volney declined calls but sent a message late on Wednesday night, “You have abused the truth with your pen.” Asked hours later, yesterday, if he was still in post as the Minister of Justice, Volney replied, “Ask God and God alone.”
He late last evening said he accepted the Prime Minister’s decision.