Wednesday, September 18, 2019

SLP: Allow case to proceed unhindered

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PRESS RELEASE:- The Saint Lucia Labour Party welcomes the significant and important decision of the Eastern Caribbean Court of Appeal to reinstate the charges of Misfeasance in Public Office against Prime Minister Allen Chastanet and former Soufriere Town Clerk, Kenneth Cazaubon and to reverse the High Court ruling on the ownership of the monies used by Mr. Chastanet as well as the Attorney General’s standing to have brought the case.

The essential facts are that the Attorney General had alleged that public monies belonging to the Crown and intended for public purposes were improperly used by Mr. Chastanet when a minister of the Crown, for political purposes namely his launch at the Soufriere Stadium under the guise of a lighting ceremony.

In a blistering judgment, delivered on Monday, 4 July 2016, the Court of Appeal held that High Court judge, Justice Belle, was manifestly in error to have dismissed the application against Mr. Chastanet without first having a substantial hearing with evidence on the merits. According to the Appellate Court “Where a serious justiciable issue is brought before the court by a party with a genuine and legitimate interest in obtaining a decision against an adverse party, the court will not allow legal niceties to bar such a party from seeking relief. The present case concerns serious issues of public importance; accordingly, the Government’s standing to challenge the conduct of the respondents should not be determined on a preliminary objection to the court’s jurisdiction.

The Court of Appeal also found that even though the High Court Judge had given leave for the Attorney General to amend her pleadings, his decision was nonetheless based not on the amended pleadings which he had given permission for but instead on the original pleadings which were legally no longer before him. This is what the Court of appeal said at paragraph 141. “It is interesting to say the least that even though on 5th December 2014, the learned judge had granted the Attorney General leave to file and serve a further amended statement of claim that there was only reference to this fact by Mr. Astaphan SC. It is even more curious that notwithstanding the fact that the Attorney General filed and served the further amended claim and the further amended statement of claim on 23rd April 2015, well before the learned judge had rendered his judgment, the learned judge did not make any reference to those further documents in his written judgment.”

At the High Court, Justice Belle had also ruled that the Attorney General did not have legal standing to file the case against Messrs. Chastanet and Cazaubon. The Appeal Court was scathing in rejecting that conclusion. Stating at paragraph 156, “The remedy of striking out is a nuclear option and should only be utilized in cases where the pleadings are incurably bad. I agree with Mr. Astaphan SC that the learned judge went too far and made several findings of fact on matters that were not before him for determination. In fact, several of the statements that were made by the learned judge have no basis and amount to no more than speculation . . .  In Ian Peters v Robert George Spencer, George-Croquet JA held that a statement of case is not suitable for striking out if it raises a serious live issue of fact which can only be properly determined by hearing oral evidence. I have no doubt that the learned judge was in no position to determine whether or not the monies belonged to the Crown at the pleadings stage and should have refrained from doing so.”

The Court of Appeal went even further at paragraph 158, stating: “In the application that engaged the learned judge, the Attorney General’s standing was determined by the resolution of the ownership of the funds in question. I am not of the view that the question of whether the funds were the property of the Council or the Crown was a question of law to be decided by the court as argued by Mr. Patterson QC. To the contrary, the question was clearly one of mixed fact and law, which could only have been resolved after a full ventilation of the issues at a trial. I am fortified in this view having examined the number of impermissible findings of fact made by the learned judge on the pleadings alone coupled with the amount of conjecture that the learned judge was forced to make. The learned judge clearly erred in his approach as stated in paragraph 22 of the judgment   The learned judge clearly erred in his approach to the resolution of the issue of locus standi. In my view for the reasons advanced above, this case is a most inappropriate one for the exercise of the court’s power to strike out under CPR 26. I have no doubt that had the learned judge properly applied his mind to the relevant principles and properly applied them he would have concluded that he was in no position to determine the matter at the pleadings stage and based on the strength or otherwise of the evidence which may be adduced in support of the case and in any event should have refrained from so doing on a strike out application of this kind.

As a result, the Court of Appeal concluded that there were sufficient grounds “to dispose of the appeal and to order that the appeal be allowed and remit the further amended claim and the further amended statement of claim to be case managed by a different judge in accordance with the Civil Procedure Rules 2000”. This means that the allegations against Mr. Chastanet must now be tried by a different Judge.

The Court of Appeal judgment has also cleared the way for the case against Ezechiel Joseph to also proceed to trial as this had been put on hold pending the Appellate Court’s ruling.

For the Saint Lucia Labour Party, the cases at issue, and the Tuxedo Villas case, were never about individuals but instead about the safeguarding of public funds, the issue of good governance, the fiduciary obligation of public officers, especially ministers to treat with public funds in a proper manner and the abuse of office by public officials including ministers. This is what the Labour Party has always stood for and it will not relent in that quest.

We are acutely aware that one of the defendants against whom serious allegations have been made is now the Prime Minister of Saint Lucia. No doubt the temptation may be great for him to simply discontinue the matters. We would caution against such action and, therefore, call on Mr. Chastanet to allow the matters to proceed unhindered.

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