Needed: Audited account of CCJ's trust fund
Business has resumed in the House of Representatives as members return from the Christmas break, and quite predictably, much of the attention was placed on the three Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) bills.
The Government is proposing to replace the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council with the CCJ as Jamaica's final court of appeal. The Opposition, however, has insisted that a referendum be held for the people to decide.
Like many Jamaicans, I am not convinced there should be a referendum to decide this matter. Two arguments advanced by the Government have found comfort with me. The first of those arguments is that it is unwise to subject matters of the judiciary to the political hustings. For, given the nature of our politics, irreparable harm may be inflicted on our court system as a result of venomous statements made on political platforms. We have had a history of attacking persons, their families, and talking around issues, and there is nothing that convinces me that we will move away from that anytime soon.
The second argument that convinces me that a referendum is not the way to go is the assertion that it defies logic to have a vote on a matter that is not within Jamaica's powers. The argument, essentially, is that while Jamaica may, in a referendum, vote to retain the Privy Council as its final court of appeal, Britain can at anytime decide to put an end to Jamaica's stay at the court. They could, almost overnight, decide they no longer want to make the Privy Council available to former colonies, which could be a constitutional and legislative nightmare for Jamaica.
But those two arguments are not enough to convince me that the CCJ is the appropriate institution to be the country's final court of appeal. Delroy Chuck, an opposition member of parliament who represents North East St Andrew in the House, raised the issue of the sustainability of the court from a financial point of view.
A trust fund was established by the CARICOM states signing the agreement, who together invested US$100 million into the fund, the income from which would take care of all the expenditures of the court and commission.
Chuck, who for a brief while served as justice minister, noted that the US$100 million was invested in the best blue-chip investments, and argues that it cannot generate the needed income annually to finance the court and still maintain the capital of US$100 million.
"In fact, a few years ago, I understand the fund had depreciated to under US$90 million and declining. The fact of the matter is that similar investments across the world are suffering the same fate. Blue-chip investments cannot earn more than two to three per cent, maximum, annually and that limited income cannot finance the CCJ - to pay the judges and the registry staff, for travelling and housing, and, soon, for pension for retiring judges. We need to know the present status of the fund. If, indeed, the capital is eroding and steadily declining, it won't be long before Caribbean governments are required to fund the court directly or to top up the trust fund," Chuck said.
Quite appropriately, Chuck said before the vote on the three bills is taken, the audited account of the trust fund should be presented in this Parliament. That is a call The Gavel supports. One notes, for example, that the latest annual report of the CCJ, which has been posted on the court's website, is for the 2011-2012 year. It means that not even the most updated report of the court's finances is available.
If the Government is to convince more Jamaicans that the CCJ is the best option for Jamaica, Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, when she closes the debate, must seek to convince us all about the sustainability of the court. She made the point in the opening that the court will not come at any additional cost to Jamaica, since we have already paid our share towards the trust fund. Indeed, Jamaica contributed US$27 million to the fund to finance the CCJ.
Chuck may have been off the mark when he said that the fund was depreciated below US$90 million. The fact is that the US$100 million was placed in a trust fund from which US$12 million would be used to run the court for its first two years. The remaining US$88 million would be invested, the returns from which would finance the court in perpetuity.
The fund has not been immune to the collapse of global financial markets which took place between 2008 and 2010. Simpson Miller could allay our fears if she causes such report of the fund to be tabled in Parliament.
The last thing we want is for Jamaicans to be called upon to pay another US$27 million because the fund has either been depleted or turns out to be inadequate.