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Guarding freedom of informationat
The recent debate in the Parliament arising from the Government’s attempt to exempt the Strategic Services Agency (SSA) from the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act was filled with heated moments and even suspension of sittings to facilitate cooling down of flared tempers.
However the Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi made certain references on January 12, 2018 which has caused some concern and calls for some analysis.
In support of his claim that the Opposition’s objection to exempting the SSA from the Freedom of Information Act lacked bona fides, he referred to judicial review proceedings involving Devant Maharaj (former UNC Minister) and the Minister of National Security. According to Al-Rawi, Devant Maharaj claimed that the Minister of National Security was in contempt for failing to produce annual reports for the SSA’s operations for the years 2012 to 2015.
The AG insinuated that persons who he perceived as being affiliated with the Opposition were part of a plan to pursue legal challenges which were succeeding before the courts. What was worse in his view, was the fact that these persons were being awarded costs.
Unfortunately for the AG, many of us followed the particular case closely in the public domain and are therefore familiar with it. As Secretary General and spokesperson of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, my name was one of the names which was disclosed as having been spied upon under the PNM’s Manning-led Government. I considered it important to see if the possibility of spying was still taking place albeit under the authority of the Interception of Communications Act passed in 2011 (ICA). In this regard, it was critical to have the Reports laid before the Parliament.
A fact-check would reveal that firstly, the case had absolutely nothing to do with the Freedom of Information Act. The claim sought to compel the Government to lay Annual Reports before the Parliament concerning the interception of communications (which it is required to do by the ICA). Any analogy with the current debate in the Parliament is therefore pointless and totally misconceived.
Secondly, contrary to AG Al-Rawi, the word “contempt” featured nowhere in the proceedings whether in writing or otherwise. In contradiction to Al-Rawi’s statements in the Parliament, the naming of Minister Dillon was a requirement of public law practice and the declarations sought through the court was against the “Minister with the responsibility for National Security” and not Minister Dillon personally.
The duty to lay the reports is a continuing one regardless of who holds the office. A further fact check would reveal that there has been no quantification of costs to date and the AG’s statements that costs start at $65,000 is not correct.
The question arises as to why the AG feels the need to speak to the country in this melodramatic way.
He even proceeded to call out the names of the lawyers in the case as if they were doing something wrong.
As the titular head of the Bar, he ought to know that lawyers have a duty to represent their clients and if it is they were being mischievous, his office could have objected to the claim as being vexatious or that the parties were mere busy-bodies.
Instead, he chose not to advise that the court would have been satisfied of the particular claim being in the public interest.
From recent events, it appears that the PM, Minister Stuart Young and the AG, all have a penchant to chastise citizens and their lawyers who approach the courts. Is it that when the PNM is in power, people should not access the courts to have issues against the State or in the public interest determined?
What is even worse is that the AG’s words seem to suggest that the Judiciary has rubber stamped legal action against the Government. This is indeed most unfortunate.
As adviser to the Cabinet and guardian of the public’s welfare, the AG must know this is not so.
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