Trinidad appeal court rejects opposition election challenge

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Members of the UNC legal team, from left, Wayne Sturge, Jayanti Lutchmedial, Timothy Straker QC, Anand Ramlogan SC, Gerald Ramdeen and Kent Samlal leave the Hall of Justice, Port-of-Spain, after the election petition was dismissed on Monday. Photo: Nicole Drayton/Trinidad Guardian

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad — The Court of Appeal in Port of Spain, Trinidad, took just two hours on Monday to reject an appeal by the opposition United National Congress (UNC) challenging the dismissal of its election petitions over the results of last year’s general election.

Chief Justice Ivor Archie and Appellate Judges Allan Mendonca and Peter Jamadar dashed the UNC’s hopes of having a by-election in five marginal constituencies as they ruled that the polls had been conducted “in a free and fair manner consistent with the constitutional requirements for democracy,” the Trinidad Guardian reported.

However, the appeal panel, comprised of the country’s most senior judges, ruled that the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) overstepped its remit when it decided to extend the polls by one hour in Trinidad due to heavy rainfall.

“The population can feel safe that the democratic process has not been undermined,” Archie said as he noted that the EBC’s breach was not egregious enough to taint the election result and render it null and void, as contended by the UNC.

Referring to a cross-appeal filed by the EBC, Archie said the court was not in a position to afford the commission the power to make adjustments to an election in extenuating circumstances, such as natural disasters.

“It is improper for us to interfere as any rules are in the providence of Parliament,” Archie said.

The Court of Appeal’s decision on the issue is final, as there is no right of appeal to the United Kingdom-based Privy Council in election petition cases.

The panel’s decision to deliver its judgment just hours after submissions in the appeal, after two-and-a-half days of hearings, appeared to surprise the legal teams in the case, as the Appeal Court almost always reserves their decision at the end of appeals, the Trinidad Guardian noted.

While delivering the brief oral decision, however, Archie explained that the panel felt that an almost instant decision was needed as election petitions are required to be handled expeditiously.

“The result was clear to us and we thought that we should not keep the population waiting,” Archie said.

The panel’s decision was consistent with High Court Mira Dean-Armorer’s judgment in the case delivered in August, except in terms of the distribution of legal costs to the parties.

While Dean-Armorer ruled that the UNC should pay the legal costs incurred by People’s National Movement (PNM) candidates in successfully defending the petitions, the Court of Appeal felt that the costs should be borne by each individual as the petitions dealt with issues that were of public interest.

About The Case

Following its 23-18 defeat in last year’s general election, the UNC initially filed petitions for six marginal constituencies.

Both the PNM and the EBC initially appealed trial judge Mira Dean-Armorer’s decision to grant the UNC leave to pursue the claim but were denied by the Court of Appeal.

In March, the petition for one constituency was struck out by Dean-Armorer after the UNC failed to serve it on successful PNM candidate Maxie Cuffie by the deadline for doing so.

In its petitions, the UNC contended that its loss in the election was affected by the EBC’s decision to extend the time for the polls.

Both the PNM and the EBC had claimed that the commission was allowed to take the decision and, even if it was not, the results of the election would remain the same, even if all the votes cast during the extension, regardless of candidate chosen, were to be subtracted from the totals of the winning candidates.

Besides the petitions, Dean-Armorer has also been assigned two cases in which three private citizens are challenging the EBC’s decision, including an application for judicial review seeking the court’s clarification on whether the EBC had the constitutional power to make the decision and a claim claiming that the EBC breached the constitutional rights of Tobagonians by not allowing them an extension.

Both cases were deferred as they are directly affected by the outcome of Dean-Armorer and the Court of Appeal’s decisions on the petitions.

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