Now the Caribbean judges are kicking up a storm

Last week I wrote about how Caribbean politicians were manipulating their legal system - and in particular speeding up the procedures that lead to hanging - in order to win votes and buttress their own power.

I faxed copies of the piece to my friends in the Caribbean - judges and practising lawyers. Not only were they immensely pleased that I had placed the issue of the independence of the judiciary on the agenda, but they assured me that they were kicking up a storm on the very same issue at the very same time.

Only a few days ago, at the beginning of the law term in Trinidad and Tobago, the entire legal fraternity processed in full regalia to the Anglican Cathedral where I once served at the altar.

The chief justice, Michael de la Bastide, tore into the attorney-general, Ramesh Maharaj, for trying to undermine the independence of the judiciary.

As I wrote last week, a man called Dole Chadee, with his henchmen, had ordered the murders of an entire family over an outstanding drug debt. To satisfy national emotion, Maharaj wanted the murderers hanged. He accelerated their cases so that the hangings would not fall foul of a ruling by the Privy Council in London (still the final court of appeal for some Caribbean countries) that too long a period under threat of execution constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

In this instance, he got the collusion of the chief justice. He rubbed his hands in glee. There was much else that he wanted for his political party and government - judges of his own choosing, circumvention of the need to tender for state contracts, change in the electoral law, the setting up of a final court of appeal to replace the Privy Council and much else.

He warned that he would appoint a chancellor of the judiciary - almost certainly a prominent political ally - who would take charge of the chief justice's budget and thus cut the powers of the chief justice substantially. The judicial structure is explicitly laid down in the constitution. But never mind. With an administrative flick of the wrist, all constitutional arrangements would bite the dust.

The chief justice made the issue public in what I am told is a volatile national situation. The future of Caribbean society was at stake, he said. Then out of the 29 judges in the state, 28 wrote a letter and released it publicly stating their opposition to the appointment of a chancellor of the judiciary and requiring the attorney-general to withdraw at once.

These judicial figures, most of whom I know personally, are not firebrands in any sense of that term. They are, by any stretch of imagination, the most conservative body of people in the entire country. Come to think of it, I have never heard any of them express a point of view on the island's politics. Yet now they find themselves in the vanguard of change.

What will the attorney-general do? There is not much to go by. This is but halfway through his party's term in government.

While he was in opposition, though, shadowing the post, he was playing around and befriending a band of fundamentalist Muslims. These young men got themselves some arms and attempted to seize power. Maharaj was the first at the airport hightailing it to the neighbouring island of Grenada. Not much cojones, I would have thought. A serious rout and retreat appears on the agenda, and a good thing, too.

But he is right that the Privy Council's powers in the Caribbean should be replaced by local courts of appeal.

Alas, I don't expect much to happen on that front. Two years ago, it was agreed among the Caribbean attorney-generals that one of their lot should travel around the islands alerting the population to the desire and need for change. I am sorry to report that he has not got off his backside yet.