The court is not getting involved in Parliament’s business.
Oropouche East MP Dr Roodal Moonilal has lost his legal bid to get protection of the court from what he considered to be an abuse of his fundamental rights. Moonilal had argued that his constitutional right to a fair hearing was being denied and had sought to have the court declare that the Privileges Committee of the House of Representatives was improperly constituted and therefore incapable of taking action against him.
In what has been described as a landmark decision, Justice Jacqueline Wilson ruled last Friday that the courts could not review the exercise of parliamentary privilege. “Where a court has determined that a sphere of activity is necessary to the proper functioning of Parliament, the enquiry ends as the privilege has been established. No court or external body may enquire into the manner of its exercise,” she stated.
The case emanated from Moonilal’s remarks — “Da is why Snake have lead for you” — which were made across the floor to Laventille East MP Fitzgerald Hinds in October 2018. Government leader Camille Robinson-Regis brought a motion to have Moonilal sent to the Privileges Committee and House Speaker Bridgid Annisette George ruled that a prima facie case for breach of privilege had been made. The matter was deliberated upon by the Privileges Committee whose recommendation that Moonilal apologise to the House and Hinds for the remarks by way of a personal explanation, was approved by the House on June 26, 2019.
Moonilal had first sought to injunct the Privileges Committee in February, alleging that the appointment of temporary members to the Committee had unlawfully increased the Committee’s membership. (Committee members Robinson-Regis and Hinds had recused themselves and two Government MPs had been temporarily appointed in their stead). Moonilal then sought to have the Report deemed null and void because of the “improper constitution” of the Committee and on the grounds of apparent bias by the Committee’s chairman, the Speaker.
In her ruling, Justice Wilson summarised the issues to be:
1) Whether the Speaker’s decision to appoint temporary members to the Committee falls within the scope of parliamentary privilege;
2) Whether the decision is subject to review by the courts;
3) Whether the Speaker’s decision to refer the allegations of contempt to the Committee is vitiated by apparent bias; and
4) Whether the Committee’s decision, including any action taken on it, is unlawful and in breach of the claimant’s fundamental rights.
“Because the courts cannot review the exercise of parliamentary privilege, even on breach of human rights, they must ensure that the protection afforded by a privilege does not exceed its purpose...The (Privilege) Committee’s work, including the decision made by the Speaker on the appointment of its members falls within a sphere of activity that is necessary to the proper functioning of Parliament — namely, the exercise of disciplinary authority over its members,” Justice Wilson said. “Therefore, any departure from the Standing Orders in making appointments to the Committee, if there was such a departure, is a matter for Parliament and not the courts,” she added.
Justice Wilson found where the court found that Parliament and/or its Committees was exercising a power that is within the scope of an established privilege, the manner of its exercise cannot be enquired into by the court, even where a breach of fundamental rights is alleged. In such a case Parliament has exclusive jurisdiction over the Committee’s proceedings and any irregularities in the procedure adopted by the Committee are to be dealt with by the Parliament and not the court.
She ended her ruling by stating that the decisions of the Committee were not subject to review by the court and that the claimant’s case had therefore failed. Moonilal’s case was dismissed.
Anand Ramlogan SC, Gerald Ramdeen and Dayadai Harripaul appeared for Moonilal; Douglas Mendes SC, Michael Quamina and Sean Julien appeared for the Attorney General and Deborah Peake SC, Ravi Heffes-Doon and Kendra Mark appeared for the Speaker of the House. After months of avoidance, during which time he was not allowed to speak in the House, Moonilal, on September 13, eventually complied with the June 26 resolution that he apologise by way of personal explanation.