Opposition MPs lose bid to overturn parliamentary suspension

The content originally appeared on: INews Guyana

Already suspended from the National Assembly and not receiving their salaries and other benefits, eight Opposition Members of Parliament (MPs) now have to find hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay costs after a Judge, on Monday, dismissed their bid to overturn their suspension.

Opposition Chief Whip Christopher Jones, Ganesh Mahipaul, Sherod Duncan, Natasha Singh-Lewis, Annette Ferguson, Vinceroy Jordan, Tabitha Sarabo-Halley, and Maureen Philadelphia were, in July of last year, officially suspended for breaching the National Assembly’s Standing Orders by participating in the infamous grabbing of the Speaker’s Mace — the most significant symbol in the National Assembly – and for disrupting the sitting of the National Assembly on December 29, 2021, during their protest against readings of the Natural Resource Fund (NRF) Bill.

Following investigations, the Parliamentary Committee of Privileges delivered its report, recommending the suspension of the eight MPs for violating Standing Orders and established customs and practices regarding acceptable behaviour of parliamentarians.

The Committee of Privileges was tasked with considering a Privilege Motion which stated that the Opposition Members, in attempting to prevent the second and third readings of the Natural Resource Fund (NRF) Bill, had conducted themselves in a gross, disorderly, contumacious, and disrespectful manner, and had repeatedly ignored the authority of the National Assembly and that of the Speaker, thereby committing contempt and breaches of privileges.

Against Attorney General Anil Nandlall, House Speaker Manzoor Nadir, and Clerk of the National Assembly, Sherlock Isaacs (the respondents), the MPs were seeking, among other things, a declaration that the report of the Committee of Privileges is unconstitutional, null, void, and of no legal effect; and that their suspension is a breach of the principles of natural justice, because their rights, as guaranteed under Article 144 (8) of the Constitution, have been infringed.

Justice Damone Younge, in her ruling, sided with the respondents’ arguments that the internal affairs and procedures of the National Assembly, including the discipline of its members, are not justiciable by any court. She, therefore, held that the High Court had no jurisdiction to hear the MPs’ case.

Citing a plethora of cases from the Commonwealth, the High Court Judge said that when it comes to the internal operations of the National Assembly, that body is vested with exclusive control over the management of its proceedings subject only to the Constitution.

“The manner of the application of Standing Orders and the functions and deliberations of the Privileges Committee are purely matters of internal procedure over which the National Assembly has total control. The framers of our Constitution, in their infinite wisdom, reserved the remit of the National Assembly’s procedures to the National Assembly itself as set out in Article 165 (1) of the Constitution,” the Judge noted.

According to her, the powers exercisable under the Standing Orders of the National Assembly are not subject to the provisions of the Constitution having to do with the protection of the fundamental rights and freedoms of an individual.

Further, Justice Younge added that the Constitution does not make provisions for the fundamental rights provisions to be applicable to proceedings in the National Assembly.She said that she is also inclined to the view that the MPs, having taken an oath of office, are bound by and subject to the rules governing the operations of the National Assembly made pursuant to Article 165 (1) of the Constitution and in its Standing Orders, including those relating to the discipline of its members.

While noting that they have not challenged the Standing Orders, Justice Younge held that the Privileges Committee which produced the report, is a creature of the National Assembly and has been established by its Standing Orders and its functions have been defined by the Standing Orders to which all MPs, including the eight suspended MPs, must adhere to.

Having regard to her findings, she found that the MPs’ case is not exceptional and does not warrant the exercise of the court’s constitutional jurisdiction. “As such, this court refrains from inquiring into the internal proceedings of the National Assembly and from exercising its jurisdiction to hear the MPs’ case on its merits.”

“The court is ever mindful of trespassing into the realm of the legislature and usurping or appearing to usurp the authority of this arm of the State to regulate its own procedures as specifically provided for in the Constitution, whilst still maintaining its role as the guardian of the Constitution,” said Justice Younge in concluding. She ordered that the MPs pay costs to the respondents in the sum of $350,000 each on or before February 6.

According to the Committee’s report, its recommendations were based on video recordings, statements by staff of the Parliament Office and the Arthur Chung Conference Centre (ACCC), eyewitness accounts by other Members of the National Assembly, media reporters, and the public, both local and international.

Additionally, each of these Opposition Members had been written to and asked to “show cause” why sanctions should not be meted out to them. Their responses were received and considered by the Committee.

Armed with those responses, the Committee “found that the named MPs were in violation of the Standing Orders and established Customs and Practices regarding acceptable behaviour of Members in the Assembly.” It was thus determined that the appropriate sanction available for the National Assembly to impose is suspension from service in the House.

The Privileges Committee recommended that Jones, Mahipaul, Duncan, and Singh-Lewis be each suspended for four consecutive sittings: for attempting to prevent the second and third readings of the NRF Bill; for conducting themselves in a gross, disorderly, contumacious, and disrespectful manner; and for repeatedly ignoring the authority of the Assembly and that of the Speaker, thereby committing contempt and breaches of privileges.

A recommendation was also made for MPs Ferguson and Jordan to each be suspended for six consecutive sittings for similar offences. However, their suspension was higher, since the Committee concurred that they had committed “serious violations which were severe and egregious, by unauthorisedly removing the Parliamentary Mace from its rightful position in a disorderly fashion, causing damage to the Mace; and injuring and assaulting a staff of the Parliament Office while attempting to remove the Mace from the Chamber”.

And a similar recommendation of suspension for six consecutive sittings has been made against Sarabo-Halley, whose violations were found to be “severe and egregious with regard to unauthorisedly entering the Communication Control Room of the ACCC and destroying several pieces of audio-visual equipment, being public property”.

MP Philadelphia is also facing a suspension recommendation of six consecutive sittings over her severe and egregious violations, by which she “verbally assaulted a staff of the Parliament Office within the precincts of the National Assembly”.

The Privileges Committee is chaired by the House Speaker, and its members comprise both Government and Opposition MPs.Representing Government are: Prime Minister Brigadier (ret’d) Mark Phillips; the Attorney General; Parliamentary Affairs and Governance Minister Gail Teixeira; Culture, Youth and Sport Minister Charles Ramson; and Attorney-at-Law Sanjeev Datadin. Representing the Opposition are Khemraj Ramjattan; Roysdale Forde, SC; and David Patterson.

It is understood that the Opposition Members did not participate in the last three of five Privileges Committee meetings.

Hence, the other members, including the Chairman, had gone ahead and concluded the report with recommendations for the suspension of the eight Opposition MPs.The Clerk of the National Assembly had written the suspended MPs, informing them that, during the period of their suspension, they would not be paid salaries and allowances, and would not be entitled to some of the other benefits enjoyed by other Members of the House.

Notwithstanding the findings of the Committee of Privileges, the Opposition parliamentarians, in legal documents seen by this publication, contended that they are “unaware of any act of ours on the day in question falling in the category of gross disorderly conduct, contempt, and breaches of privileges, and that to the best of our recollection, on the day in question, our posture was no different from all other Members of Parliament who were present…”

Among other things, they had submitted that their suspension is part of an unconstitutional scheme and/or device by the Government to utilise its majority in the National Assembly to silence and reduce the numbers of sitting parliamentary Opposition Members of Parliament.