This being the nation's Jubilee year, many institutions are taking the opportunity to assess their performances over the past decade and also making plans to improve their performances over the years ahead. The courts are among those institutions engaging in this exercise. How have they done? What has been the quality of mercy? Has it been strained or did justice prevail?
Some might recall that the judiciary was one of the institutions that generated a great deal of passionate controversy in the run up to independence. Many establishment minority groups, including the then Bar Society, wanted the status quo to remain in terms of how the Chief Justice was to be appointed.
Speaking at the Queen's Hall Conference on behalf of the Society, Mr Gerald Furness-Smith expressed the view that the Governor General should appoint the CJ and not the PM. Fears were expressed that in making appointments to the JLSC, the Prime Minister might be inclined to choose individuals who were partial to the executive's point of view
The Bar Society's view was that with the departure of the Colonial Office, more and more constitutional issues would be presented to the judiciary for settlement. "Judges, more than before, will be the guardians of the law against political parties."
This was particularly necessary, since unlike what obtained in the United Kingdom, the Constitution and not Parliament was supreme. Judges thus had to hold the balance between the executive and the legislature.
Prime Minister Dr Williams refused to consider the Bar Society's proposal. He however conceded that the CJ would be appointed after consultation with the Judicial and Legal Service Commission, which in practice would come to mean that there would be no meaningful consultation at all.
The conservative elements in the society of which there were still many and the Indo-based political parties had reason to be concerned. They were aware that the battle to control appointments to the judiciary had been fought in Ghana and that that battle had ended disastrously. President Nkrumah, against the advice of George Padmore and others, detained the CJ, claiming that he had made a major "misstep." He had set free one of Nkrumah's political enemies on a treason charge without advising the Osagefo in advance. Similar threatening action was taken against the judiciary in Singapore and Tanzania. The judges bent with the wind. Our judges stood firm.
That the judiciary in Trinidad and Tobago was successful in maintaining its independence was due in part to traditions it inherited, more than was the case in West Africa, a tradition of strong judicial governance, but also because of Dr Williams deep respect for Westminster traditions, and also because of who the chief Justice was.
The CJ was of course Hugh Wooding, someone who had the reputation of being one of the most distinguished men in the island, someone who was a match for Williams who the man in the street regarded as the "second brightest man in the world."
Williams, who was used to making men cower, thought more than twice before confronting Wooding. He knew that Wooding would resign as CJ and walk away rather than genuflect, which Wooding had done before. That there was no love between Wooding and Williams was a boon for the development of certain codes of political behaviour which still persist
Wooding, for example refused to attend any function relating to the Independence celebrations if the judiciary was not put third in the table of precedence rather than behind the members of the Cabinet, the Speaker and the President of the Senate. Wooding prevailed much to the applause of the entire bench with the exception of one judge who broke ranks.''
Telford Georges, a member of the Appeal Court, puts the matter well when he observed that "Wooding brought to the office of Chief Justice tremendous personal prestige and worldly experience which it was hard to ignore." Trinidad and Tobago was fortunate that two of its best opening political batsmen were at the wicket at the same time. That was one of the happy accidents of our post-independence experience
It is perhaps worth recalling that Ellis Clarke was Williams's choice for the job and not Wooding. The parliamentary opposition and the vested interests felt that Clarke was too close to Williams and that Wooding was a safer pair of hands as far as the judiciary was concerned. They were correct in that assumption.
Let us turn next to the Judiciary as it faces some of our current crises The judiciary in many parts on the world, especially in Central and South America-Mexico, Colombia and also in parts of the US, have been accused and charged with corruption.
So far as I know, no judge in Trinidad and Tobago has ever been involved in a corrupt transaction. One senior Judge has been accused of attempting to pervert the course of justice, while one magistrate has been charged and found guilty of having being involved in a corrupt transaction. That record is not a bad one considering what has happened in the field of politics and what has happened elsewhere and in the Eastern Caribbean where such accusations have been made.
I however have fears and concerns that we are not going to be that free of challenge in the decades ahead. We may find ourselves being targeted by the narco-traffickers as the war for "turf"intensifies.
Fears have already been expressed in Jamaica and Guyana that "dons" have begun targeting officials, and we know that as rule of thumb, Trinidad is always 10 years behind Jamaica in these matters. As the late Carl Stone wrote:
"Jamaica is on the verge of developing various levels of narco-terrorism that could easily mature into the kind of Colombian situation where drug gangs operate as a state within a state and can dictate terms to governments, communities and whole societies. if we fail to take decisive action to wipe out or diminish the power of these gangs, that is where we are heading."
We shall see whether Stone was right then as he was on other matters.
In the meantime, we note that public opinion does not seem to be well disposed towards the judiciary. In an opinion survey which I did in March 2000, 56 per cent of those polled said they had no trust in the judiciary. Only 26 per cent said they had.
In another survey conducted in 2006, only seven per cent said they had a"great deal" of confidence in the judiciary, while 25 per cent said they had quite a lot. Close to half (49 per cent) confessed to having little confidence in the judiciary, with another 20 per cent having no confidence in the courts of the land
We note that the latter survey was conducted before the CJ and the Chief Magistrate had their time of trouble. The figures might have been higher if the survey was done in 2007 when Manning took on Sharma.
Lack of trust is deeply troubling. I know that the CJ is aware of it and would like to do some thing about it. As he said at the beginning of the 2011 Law Term, "timeliness, efficiency and attracting public trust and confidence are not just feel-good objectives. They are our raison d'etre." It is however hard to rebuild trust once it is lost.
Continued next Sunday