IT cannot become the norm in Trinidad and Tobago for laws with penalties attached to be made and implemented without parliamentary input as was done in the Covid-19 Regulations, a High Court judge has ruled.
Justice Ronnie Boodoosingh also urged “the Attorney General to consider, at minimum, some form of appropriate parliament scrutiny for regulations made by the executive where normal everyday freedoms are affected, as has occurred here”.
And while this is somewhat acceptable as was done with the present regulations, Justice Boodoosingh said in the future, there should be no objection to Parliament scrutinising such laws before they are imposed on citizens.
The judge made the statement yesterday as he delivered ruling in two joint cases that challenged the constitutionality and lawfulness of the Public Health Regulations and the way certain aspects, with penalties attached, were imposed on citizens.
While the judge upheld the current measures, he ruled that those aspects that criminalised certain activities in places of worship were unlawful.
He pointed out that the regulations created an offence for failing to abide by the Ministry of Health’s guidelines for places of worship but does not clearly define what constitutes a breach.
“That in itself puts someone in peril of being brought to court to answer an uncertain offence,” he said.
The judge suggested the required definitions should be placed in the regulations.
The cases were brought by Pundit Satyanand Maharaj and five men who were arrested at Alicia’s Guest House, St Ann’s, in April. They are Dominic Suraj, Marlon Hinds, Christopher Wilson, Bruce Bowen and Collin Ramjohn.
While Maharaj was never arrested or charged with any breach, he had claimed the regulations restricted his constitutional rights to freedom of conscience and religious belief and observance.
The other five were all charged with gathering in a group of more than five, contrary to the regulation. They all appeared virtually before a Port of Spain magistrate in mid-April and were granted bail.
Free to practise
In their claim, four of the men with the exception of Ramjohn said they were doing charitable work by cooking and providing food to a group of Venezuelans who were staying at the guest house.
Ramjohn, a fisherman, claimed he went to the location on the night of the arrests to collect money for a car he had rented to an employee of the establishment.
In the end, the judge dismissed the claim brought by the five, but partially upheld the claim brought by Pundit Maharaj.
He noted that while there are restrictions on the gathering of people, there was nothing that struck at the core of Maharaj’s freedom to practise religion. He just has to do it with fewer people present, he said.
Justice Boodoosingh said even though when it came to instances where laws had to be passed to curtail the freedom of movement of citizens, parliamentary scrutiny was required but in certain exceptional circumstances it may not be deemed necessary.
Public health interest was one of those instances, he said, pointing out that the colonial-age Public Health Ordinance gave the power to the executive to put in place the current regulations.
“It seems to me that Public Health Regulations to prevent the spread of infectious and dangerous disease fall within the narrow compass of exceptional laws which permit a minister leeway to restrict certain of the rights and freedoms under the Constitution,” he stated.
Citizens’ freedom impacted
However, Justice Boodoosingh said his ruling did not mean the State should continue to move forward with expanding the regulations without parliamentary input.
“This decision should therefore not be taken as encouragement to expand the areas of law where regulations made by the executive restrict rights and freedoms of individuals without parliamentary scrutiny or without considering whether a special majority is needed,” Boodoosingh said.
He said there should be no objection to parliamentary oversight to the passing of such restrictions in the future.
“I would, however, urge the Attorney General to consider, at minimum, some form of appropriate parliament scrutiny for regulations made by the executive where normal everyday freedoms are affected, as has occurred here,” he said.
The judge pointed out that main function of the legislature is to make laws while the main function of the executive is to frame policy, implement the law and govern.
“Members of Parliament are elected to Parliament to discuss, scrutinise, debate and pass laws on behalf of citizens. In my view, there ought really to be no objection in principle to some form of parliamentary scrutiny to regulations being made which, even if justifiable, impact on the freedoms of citizens,” he said.
The claimants were represented by Anand Ramlogan, SC, Renuka Rambhajan, Douglas Bayley, Jared Jagroo, Che Dindial, Ganesh Saroop and Vishaal Siewsaran while Reginald Armour, SC, Rishi Dass, Raphael Ajodhia, Svetlana Dass, Savi Ramhit, Diane Katwaroo and Lianne Thomas appeared on behalf of the Office of the Attorney General.