September 30 2009 – newsday.co.tt
ATTORNEY GENERAL (AG) John Jeremie did not exactly admit it on Monday in the Senate, but in our view he seemed to be trying to make a case for debt-forgiveness for the half-million dollars owed by Prime Minister Patrick Manning as unpaid legal costs to the State. Mr Jeremie said Mr Manning has so far paid $555,000 out of a $1.15 million debt incurred in 2002 when he lost his High Court bid to stop the defection of the then-Opposition MPs Dr Rupert Griffith and Dr Vincent Lasse to join the former UNC government.
Almost as if pleading Mr Manning’s case, Mr Jeremie said several things in apparent mitigation. He said Mr Manning wasn’t the only one with unpaid legal-debts, as he cited Opposition Leader Basdeo Panday as owing a total of about $320,000, while the duo of Ishwar Galbaransingh and Steve Ferguson owe $1 million, Fyzabad MP Chandresh Sharma owes $160,000 and one Balram Singh owes $144,418.
Mr Jeremie also claimed the $1.15 million costs imposed on Mr Manning were an aberration, saying, “No equivalent sum has ever been received by the State as costs in any action ever.”
The AG also seemed to be making excuses by claiming that recovery of costs can be an expensive and protracted process, which might even involve third parties challenging any order of levy or seizure of assets.
What really put the icing on the cake of Mr Jeremie’s statement was his incredible remark, “At present, the State has no official policy position with respect to the recovery of costs owed to it.” We absolutely could not believe our collective ears at this feeble “admission”, which we fear may now well be seized upon by other high-profile debtors to the State.
Jeremie appeared to try to wash his hands of the matter, as he merely referred to draft guidelines suggested in 2000 by the then attorney general, Ramesh Maharaj.
This draft policy, said Jeremie, had suggested debt-forgiveness for matters over five years old, for matters involving the interpretation of constitutional provisions or matters concerning the public/national interest, or for impecunious litigants.
Jeremie had lamented that courts have awarded costs to the State even in cases which were well- intentioned but ill-informed, and where the issue at hand was one of the interpretation of the law of the land in the interest of the citizenry. “Clearly these are matters which ought to be the subject of a policy on costs,” he remarked.
That is a point of debate. We certainly agree that there needs to be a clearing of the air on the matter. It is complex. On one hand there is the argument that it is patently unfair for these top public figures to fail to pay these costs to the State, which if had been incurred by the ordinary citizen, would have seen him virtually lose the shirt off his back. Should there be one law for these public figures, yet another law for the small man?
On the other hand, there is an argument that the prospect of incurring such steep legal costs simply serves to keep politics as a rich man’s pursuit at best, and at worst to lure political parties into the arms of financiers with the deepest pockets regardless of the source of such funds.
We certainly see parallels in this issue of the forgiveness of politicians’ legal-debts, to the general issue of party financing and even to the issue of huge damages awarded in libel cases which may also involve such public figures, such as the $1 million debt incurred in the “pseudo racist” case.
Regarding all these issues, we would simply like to see a level playing field, where politics is relatively open for individuals to participate in, without being deterred by fears of the award of such high costs. This in fact is the sort of thing that should be subject of debate in any new draft constitution. Until that happens, however, we suggest that the AG retract his view that debt collection is not a “pressing matter” for him, and instead make a decision as to whether or not he is going to collect these outstanding debts.
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