Darcus Howe thinks the Privy Council matters

A quaint colonial relic - but at least it saves people from being hanged

Tony Blair's announcement that a supreme court will replace all others as the final court of law in Britain sent shivers down the spines of those members of the Bar in the Caribbean who practise before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council here in the UK. The same applies to many criminal defendants whose only hope of keeping their necks safely attached to their bodies turns on access to that committee, which is the final court of appeal for cases originating in the Caribbean. The law lords, who are to be abolished in their present form, constitute, when sitting in a different room, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.

Caribbean governments have recently decided that the Privy Council represents the last vestiges of colonialism and should be replaced by a Caribbean court of justice.

There are many other features of colonialism that remain in spite of independence. Caribbean politicians pick out the Privy Council because some of its decisions irk them. It held some years ago, in the case of Pratt v Morgan, that defendants who were sentenced to hang had undergone cruel and unusual punishment because they had spent an inordinate length of time on death row awaiting their fate. This was a big step towards abolishing the death penalty, because the administration of justice in the Caribbean is so clogged that it is virtually impossible to hear all appeals in reasonable time.

But the murder rate, particularly in Jamaica and Trinidad, is high; there are political rewards in taking the "hang 'em and flog 'em" line. So getting rid of the Privy Council commands support. The big obstacle is that to set up a Caribbean court of justice, each parliament needs to pass the necessary law by a two-thirds majority. This is currently impossible in Trinidad and Tobago, in Antigua and perhaps elsewhere. The need to oppose almost everything governments propose makes consensus impossible. I know few Caribbean lawyers who object to the abolition of access to the Privy Council, but they worry about local judges, who see their role not as upholding the principles of justice but as joining the battle against crime.

I am told by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council that it will be retained to hear appeals from Commonwealth countries. But its days must be numbered. Heads sit uneasily on the shoulders of those who occupy death row in the island states.