Mon | Nov 20, 2017

Ronald Mason | Needed: a public-interest law firm

Published:Sunday | July 2, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Jamaica is a participatory democracy. The people should be paramount. The interest of the people is not always readily accommodated by the structure of the society and the deep tribal divisions.

We practise a liberal democracy, and the most admirable fact is that we are one of few countries in the world that have never changed governments by the bullet. It is, therefore, absolutely essential for the country to be administered for the people, by the people, and that the people accept and apply the rule of law.

We are blessed with a written Constitution that recognises separation of powers among the executive, the legislative and judicial branches of government. However, the Westminster parliamentary model allows for the majority of policymakers in the executive to be drawn from the legislature branch. This provides for greater need for checks and balances where the same individual has a home in both branches.

The vibrancy of the legislative process gives rise to the suitability of multiple laws designed to assure peace, equity and good order. What we do not have is a suitable vehicle for the enforcement of existing laws and regulations.

 

WHAT'S BEHIND THE BUSH?

 

The Office of the Contractor General recently tendered a report on the J$600-million bush-clearing and drain-cleaning exercise conducted just prior to, and during, the last local government elections. Questions have been raised about the suitability of the executive Cabinet being involved in contract decision-making. How did ministers Andrew Wheatley, Robert Montague, Shahine Robinson, Daryl Vaz and Everald Warmington get in on the details of the exercise to now make the rebuttal statement because the majority of bush clearing and drain clearing is alleged to have taken place in areas represented by the Opposition adds up to vindication?

One does not need to venture into one's own area of control to explore inducements that would be precisely the reason to enter Opposition-controlled areas to acquire influence. There is a Tyrone Robinson being featured. Is he the husband of Shahine Robinson? Is he her campaign manager? Is he one and the same person with the construction company and chairman of the North East Regional Health Authority and J$2 million inadequately explained?

We, as a country and a people, do not have access to an independent, robust mechanism to test these circumstances in the interest of adherence to the rule of law. The judiciary is there, but one must access the judiciary in accordance with appropriate procedure and protocol. This would be best provided by a public-interest law firm. This same organisation could test the substantive matter related to MP Ian Hayles from Hanover. We, the people, need the assurance that comes from persons conducting the checks and balances.

We have no methodology to recall members of the legislature. We have no ability to change the members of the executive. We have no provisions to test the value to the public of actions like the policy for the disposal of motor vehicles previously assigned to persons.

We have no built-in, impartial, independent review mechanisms to assess things like the sale of government-owned real estate. We have no ability to check and verify the suitability of government contracts for professional services to connected parties. We have no way for independents to get information on the constitutional imperatives of the new 'special zones' crime plan, but, ultimately, we, the people, will be most affected. We, the people, always end up bearing cost.

 

WORKING FOR THE PEOPLE

 

A public-interest law firm would be just that. This law firm could facilitate the legal tests of the Access to Information law. It could follow up reports from statutory organisations and from leads indicated by the auditor general's reports and contractor general's reports. Accountability would be enhanced.

The firm would be funded by broadband, multisectoral solicitation of capital for its creation of a trust fund. The proceeds of the trust fund would finance the daily, ongoing costs. The managerial structure would be subject to regular and periodic turnover. The legal staff would serve for fixed terms without the possibility of reappointment. They would seek to create a culture of excellence, non-interference, and cultivate the highest order of public trust.

This country has too many negative anecdotes, and unexplained actions by persons who, at first glance, cause questions to be raised as to their propriety. It is time for us the people to create a public-interest law firm in the never-ending quest for reduced corruption and good governance.

- Ronald Mason is an attorney-at-law and Supreme Court mediator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and nationsagenda@gmail.com.