I have known Vernon De Lima for many years as a lawyer practising in the criminal courts. While he has a reputation for strongly advocating his clients' cases he cannot be accused of sharp practices or discourtesy to the court or even colleagues on the other side. From my interaction with him in a matter two years ago in which we appeared on opposing sides, I was impressed by his humility and integrity.
It was therefore surprising, if not shocking, to learn that he was said to have been at a meeting in which a plot to destabilise the country was discussed. Also said to be at the meeting was one Barry Barrington, who had been detained during the 2011 State of Emergency and reported as having been charged with murder, as well as a dozen or so people. That statement therefore could seriously impugn Mr De Lima's personal and professional integrity.
What made it worse was that it was no less a person than the Minister of National Security, a member of the National Security Council, who made this statement. He was speaking under the protective cover of Parliament and, as is widely known, parliamentary proceedings constitute one situation where absolute privilege is attached to statements made. It has been rationalised that the right of MPs to speak their minds in Parliament without any risk of incurring liability as a result is absolute and must be fully respected.
That may be so but in the very case which recognised this the Privy Council stated, "parliamentary proceedings are televised and recorded. They are transcribed in Hansard. They are reported in the press, sometimes less fully than parliamentarians would wish. They form a staple of current affairs and news programmes on the radio and television. They inform and stimulate public debate." Thus it must be expected that statements such as those made by Mr Warner would be carried in the press and discussed by the media and the public. They were.
Following denials from Mr De Lima Minister Warner was called to task by the media. When confronted with Mr De Lima's denials Minister Warner is reported to have said that he had nothing to apologise for and was standing by his claim. He is further quoted as saying, "If there are two Vernon De Limas in this country who are both attorneys-at-law and I call the wrong one, I would apologise but unless there are two I will not".
The question that arises from this assertion is — did this amount to a repetition outside of Parliament of a potentially defamatory statement against Mr De Lima? Was it an extra-parliamentary confirmation that followed what was said in Parliament?
A similar matter that was considered by the Privy Council is the case of Jennings and Buchanan in 2004. In that case Mr Jennings, an MP, had made observations defamatory against Mr Buchanan, a senior official of the New Zealand Wool Board, in Parliament. Jennings was subsequently interviewed by a reporter of The Independent newspaper and during this interview the reporter asked him about his parliamentary statement. The reporter later wrote "Jennings said he did not resile from his claim about the officials' relationship". This was not denied.
It was found that while Mr Jennings did not repeat his parliamentary statement he confirmed it by reference only. The trial judge said that what was said on the latter occasion by MP Jennings republished by reference what he had said on the earlier occasion. The Privy Council affirmed that the MP was liable for defamation against Mr Buchanan.
In the current scenario therefore it may well be that Minister Warner has confirmed by reference what he said in Parliament.
The fallout from what the Minister has said however does not end there. In the last week or so we have been hearing what could be considered some extreme statements about the Government's proposal to regularise the status of members of the Defence Force, more particularly soldiers, who go on joint patrols with the police. It has been contended among other things that the move would militarise the country; that the soldiers would become the Minister's private army; police morale would be affected and the like.
It is interesting to note that for over ten years armed soldiers have been on patrols all over the country, sometimes on their own, and there has been little protest. In the last few years there has been talk of "precepting" soldiers and this provoked only minor responses.
A precept is really an oath of appointment in an office and in this case would be the office of constable. While I personally object to precepting soldiers (making them constables) I believe that the current situation where they engage in joint operations with the police, while armed, is untenable. There is uncertain legal basis for that kind of activity that has been part of our culture for some time. The obvious answer to that is to make them more effective by regulating their status. The Government's plan to restrict their powers while they are engaged in "assisting" the police is not to be sneezed at.
Yet the public outcry has been deafening with no one even alluding to what currently exists — for instance, at present there exists a joint police/army initiative in Laventille to, it is said, quell gang violence and it appears to be doing well.
Why then is there so much protest against the regularising of such situations? The answer must lie in the proclivity of the Minister of National Security to make wild statements which foments mistrust in the Government. The complaint is really as stated in a headline yesterday, "Dangerous to give Jack this power". It is not so much the issue or proposal — but who people perceive is behind it.
• Dana S Seetahal is a former Independent Senator