By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Chief Reporter
OPPOSITION MPs of the House of Assembly’s Committee on Privilege have been advised to request that the probe into Justice Indra Charles’ ruling on the limits of parliamentary privilege be adjourned until the matter is no longer before the courts.
According to a well-placed source who did not want to be named, the decision was made after careful review of “Erskine May: Parliamentary Practice,” as local rules were silent on the issue.
“I’ve looked at the law and procedure on that and there’s nothing in the House of Assembly rules but there is a lot in May’s Parliamentary Practice 24,” the source said.
“When local rules are silent on the issue, May’s Parliamentary Practice will be imported and applied not just in the practice of the House so far as it relates to how it is regulated by the speaker, but of conduct of proceedings in any given committee.”
Erskine May’s Treatise on the Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament - first published in 1844 - is considered to be the most authoritative and influential work on parliamentary procedure and British constitutional convention.
The source added: “So far as it relates to the Committee on Privilege, any complaint relating to Save The Bays insofar as a complaint that has been made or lodged by Ministers Fitzgerald and Mitchell against Charles, Smith and Bethell that arises in relation to litigation which is still running its way through the appellate process of our court system, I’ve advised the FNM members that they should apply on basis of sub judice rule to stay that matter until after the appellate process has run its course.”
In May, Justice Indra Charles ruled that Marathon MP Jerome Fitzgerald infringed on constitutional rights when he tabled the private e-mails of Save The Bays in Parliament, and therefore could not be protected by parliamentary privilege. Justice Charles ordered Mr Fitzgerald to pay $150,000 in damages for the breach, and granted a permanent injunction barring parliamentarians from accessing or making public the personal information of the non-profit organisation, Save The Bays.
In Parliament, Mr Fitzgerald moved a resolution for the House Committee on Privilege to determine whether Justice Charles, STB Director Fred Smith, QC, and lawyer Ferron Bethell should be held in contempt of the House of Assembly.
Last week, Mr Fitzgerald filed an appeal to have Justice Charles’ ruling overturned, raising speculation of whether there would be a conflict now that the matter was now under judicial consideration.
The parliamentary committee members are Mount Moriah MP Arnold Forbes, chairman, Sea Breeze MP Hope Strachan, North Abaco MP Renardo Curry - who all represent the governing party - and opposition members Central Grand Bahama MP Neko Grant and Long Island MP Loretta Butler-Turner.
The committee is expected to meet Tuesday, ahead of its first public hearing on Thursday, to finalise its agenda and refine its scope.
“We have a number of things on the agenda once we’ve done our final run through tomorrow (Tuesday) or sometime before Thursday, we will meet and make some decisions,” Mr Forbes said.
The committee’s probe has evoked mixed reaction from the legal community, with some calling the move an affront to the separation of powers while others contend that the exercise reinforces the division of the three arms of government.
Former Chief Justice Sir Michael Barnett, in an article published in The Nassau Guardian yesterday, called the defiant response of Mr Fitzgerald to the landmark ruling alarming and regrettable. He called the suggestion that Justice Charles could be summoned to Parliament to defend her judgment an “affront to the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary”. Speaking at the Eugene Dupuch Law School’s graduation ceremony, Sir Michael appealed for the judiciary to be vigilant in monitoring the committee’s work.
Yesterday, Bahamas Bar Association President Elsworth Johnson called Prime Minister Perry Christie to “settle the House”, expressing distate for the actions of parliamentarians towards Justice Charles’ ruling. Expressing support for Sir Michael’s comments, Mr Johnson said the committee’s probe was “nonsense”, pointing out that the responsible response to a dissatisfactory ruling is to seek appeal and not to undermine, or make a mockery of, the legal system.
“To go and say that you will call a judge to explain what she did,” Mr Johnson said, “that is crazy, dictators do that. [Dictators] who have no appreciation for the rule of law.”
Mr Johnson spoke to the Tribune from Washington at the annual International Bar Association conference, and said he planned to raise the issue with IBA president David Rivkin.
House Speaker Dr Kendal Major declined comment, stating that he will await the report on the scope of the investigation.