The Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) was established in 2005 as the original judicial institution of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), and, most importantly, an appellate jurisdiction or the court of last resort in the Caribbean.
In its original jurisdiction, the CCJ interprets and applies the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas (which established CARICOM).
In its appellate jurisdiction, the CCJ hear appeals in civil and criminal matters from member states replacing the British Privy Council. However, decisions for replacing the Privy Council with the CCJ has been fraught with political division in several Caribbean countries including Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, where, ironically, the CCJ is located. To date, only Barbados, Belize, Dominica, and Guyana have replaced the Privy Council’s jurisdiction with the CCJ.
Failed Referendums in Grenada, Antigua and Barbuda
Last month Grenada and Antigua and Barbuda held national referendums to replace the Privy Council with the CCJ as the court of last resort, but both referendums were defeated.
Last week the current president of the CCJ, Justice Adrian Sanders of St. Vincent, addressing the Maxwell Haywood Memorial Lecture at the Medgar Evers College in New York spoke on “The Role and Importance of the CCJ in advancing the Caribbean Civilization,”
Justice Saunders rightfully said more needs to be done to educate the Caribbean public about the role and benefits of the CCJ. He said while he’s not worried at the outcome of the Antigua and Grenada referendums, the defeats indicates, “We need more educational work.”
He questioned who in the region would be responsible for educating the public on the role of the court, adding “If we’re going to advance, we need to know how we’re going to make our country more independent.”
He offered two reason for the failed referendums in Grenada and Antigua and Barbuda.
Environment of the CCJ
The first, was the environment of the Caribbean Court compared to the British Privy council, noting that people have unhappy experiences with their local justice systems. “If trials are held in a less than adequate courthouse; if the courtroom is stiflingly hot; if the case is adjourned again and again; if a murder accused spends 10 years on remand before his case is heard; then the idea of replacing a British institution (Privy Council) with a Caribbean one is instinctively unappealing.”
The second reason cited was ignorance, as the majority of Caribbean people doesn’t understand the CCJ isn’t a part of the local justice system. “The CCJ is a separate court, but we haven’t done enough to inform and educate people,” Justice Saunders said.
He said a Caribbean Court, staffed with the best Caribbean judges, “is able to give greater effect to our aspirations as a people.”
People of Barbados and Guyana satisfied
An example of the effectiveness of the CCJ, which Justice Saunders also referred to, is for the last 13 years, the CCJ has been “dispensing justice for Barbados and Guyana to the satisfaction of the peoples of those countries.”
In those countries where the CCJ is accepted as the court of last resort the population understands and appreciate the Court. One of the reasons, according to analysts, former Barbados Prime Minister Freundel Stuart lost the general elections earlier this year was because of his attacks on the CCJ. Justice Saunders said, Stuart “was roundly condemned by the ordinary man and woman of Barbados.”
As debate over the CCJ versus the Privy Council rages in the Caribbean since 2005, several commentators have agreed for the Caribbean region to be truly independent from Britain it must have it own reliable court of last resort.
Perception CCJ inferior to Privy Council
Meanwhile, commentators also believe there’s a perception, albeit false, among some Caribbean people that the CCJ and its judges are inferior to Privy Council and its British judges. Education is needed to remove this false perception.
CCJ more than capable
“The CCJ is more than capable of handling the region’s appeals. If we are to advance as a people, politics and political tussles are important for a healthy democracy. But, there are eternal core human values that are overarching – truth, compassion, cooperation, caring, courtesy, empathy, hard honest labor. These are values opposition and government alike, and, indeed, all the people, must promote.”
Politics shouldn’t be the deciding factor
Politics should not be allowed to decide where the people of the Caribbean turn to receive ultimate justice. Jamaica was on the periphery of replacing the Privy Council in 2015 when the joint House of Representatives approved related bills. Set to advance to the Senate for approval in 2016, the ruling People’s National Party lost the general elections that year. But, incoming Prime Minister Andrew Holness decided replacing the Privy Council with the CCJ requires a national referendum.
As was evidenced in Grenada and Antigua, these referendums are conducted and decided along party lines. If voters do not understand the benefits of the CCJ in their lives, they’ll likely vote for the party that offers a stronger platform for voting against the court than voting for it. If the Caribbean can govern itself, why doesn’t it adjudicate itself?