Attorney General Armour’s pathetic press conference to explain why he and his sidekick Faris Al-Rawi failed to defend the claim for malicious prosecution brought by the men accused of kidnapping and murdering businesswoman Vindra Naipaul-Coolman has opened a pandora’s box for the PNM.
In the botched attempt to defend his gross incompetence, he overlooked certain facts that expose his lies, deception, and political hypocrisy. A careful reading of the judgment, delivered by Master Martha Alexander, reveals that not only was the AG represented by a distinguished legal team from his Ministry but it was led by Ms Karen Reid Ballantyne who is now a High Court Judge.
The judgment of the High Court records the following:
Para. 3 – “…The present matter, therefore, was a substantial one that the defendant chose neither to defend nor to call any evidence save to appear at the assessment to be heard on quantum.”
Para. 19 – “In the above regard, therefore, the court could not accept or agree with the submissions of counsel for the defendant that it should find collusion and collaboration between the experts and claimants because of the similarity of diagnosis
Where claimants are subjected to the same horrendous prison conditions and the same mental torture and humiliation, how could these be described differently to satisfy a defendant’s suspicion of collusion? This court has no doubt that given the exposure to the inhumane prison conditions and lengthy incarceration, the claimants would have suffered psychological injury, which manifested in different ways in some of the claimants. This is not an issue of “cut and paste” evidence or “a dishonest collaboration designed to increase the Claimants’ claims for damages,” as alleged by the defendant’s counsel in her submissions. In fact, the witness statements might have similar contents, based on their similar experiences, but these were expressed differently, with some claimants focusing on the extreme heat, foul smells and cramped, unsanitary conditions and how those affected their sinuses and other health issues. These arguments of the defendant’s counsel go way beyond the pale of what could be supported by the evidence before the court.”
Para. 20 – “Medical illnesses or diseases could manifest with similarity of symptoms in different persons; so the argument of counsel for the defendant that questioned how all claimants had the same diagnosis was baseless.
Para. 32 – “There was no comparator provided, which approximated the exact length of prosecution and deprivation of liberty, on serious charges, as in the present case. For their nine years of failed prosecution, the claimants sought general damages of TT$3.5 million each; whilst the defendant recommended that each be paid TT$1.2 million. The court was particularly interested in the defendant’s rationale for its suggested quantum, as the claimants had led evidence on which they sought to justify their substantial claims but the defendant did not. However, counsel for the defendant provided comparators on the low end of the spectrum of awards, without making any comparative justifications for the suggested individual awards. Further, the factual context of the defendant’s comparators were so obviously distinguishable that it was difficult to find any comparative relevance.”
It would be a serious breach of the Code of Ethics for any attorney to fully participate in a trial to assess damages without a file. This is so because Attorneys must act on instructions and based on the documents that were filed in Court. It would be a serious act of misconduct on the part of Ms Reid-Ballantyne if she, as counsel, argued a case on behalf of the AG without having the file.
The $20M award of damages was not a consent order made pursuant to an agreement between the parties. The AG’s legal team led by Ms Reid-Ballantyne actively opposed and defended the assessment of damages.
The AG has therefore cast a most serious aspersion on the character and competence of a sitting Judge of the High Court who is meant to deliver justice to our citizens. Judges must possess a high level of personal and professional integrity and impeccable character.
This attack on Madam Justice Reid Ballantyne’s character is a serious one that could bring the administration of justice into disrepute. PNM trolls are already poking fun by rhetorically asking “what if Her Ladyship writes judgments in cases, she is doing without a court file?” It is therefore imperative that Madam Justice Reid Ballantyne clears the air on whether she had the file in her possession when she represented the State at the trial of the assessment of damages.
The AG said they only received the file two days ago after Minister Young requested same from the Judiciary. If he has lied on Madam Justice Reid Ballantyne, and she did in fact have the file in her possession as the judgment suggests, and participated in the trial, on this basis the AG must immediately apologise to the learned Judge and immediately tender his resignation in shame and disgrace.
We, therefore, call upon Madam Justice Reid Ballantyne to issue a statement to clear the air on this matter. Her character, competence, and integrity have been called into question by the AG. Silence is not an option in the face of the 20-million-dollar judgment that has caused legitimate public outrage.
We wish to make it abundantly clear that we have no reason to doubt that Madam Justice Reid Ballantyne performed her duties in a professional and competent manner. It is clear from the Court’s judgment that she made submissions to the Court and could only have done so if she had the file. We consider the suggestion to the contrary by the AG to be nothing more than reckless political damage control and an attempt to save his own skin. Justice Reid Ballantyne’s track record speaks for itself – she is a former Solicitor General of Grenada and a former Assistant Solicitor General of Trinidad and Tobago.
We also call upon the Honourable Chief Justice to clarify whether the Court issued the relevant notices to the AG of the date, time, and place of each hearing in this matter. This is in fact the established practice and procedure, and this would also expose the AG’s lie that the file went missing and the State knew nothing about the progress of this matter.
If, as we suspect, these notifications were sent to the AG by the Court, the AG must apologise to the Judiciary for casting aspersions on the administration of justice. Surely if notifications were sent, the AG was under an obligation to retrieve the file and prepare for the hearing of which he had been notified by the Court. To do otherwise, would be dangerous incompetence and misconduct for which he must be held responsible. He is the titular head of the Bar and has brought the legal profession into disrepute.
The AG cannot disassociate and distance himself from this matter. As he himself pointed out, in 2018 Al-Rawi wrote a memo to rectify perceived weaknesses in the systems for accountability in the Office of the Attorney General. Having been aware of this, what did the AG do to ensure that there is a proper system in place to ensure that there is transparency, accountability, and good public administration?
As the Minister in charge, the buck stops with him and he must do the decent and honourable thing and tender his resignation forthwith, in accordance with the conventions of the Westminster System of Parliamentary Government.
Kamla Persad-Bissessar, SC, MP
Leader of the Opposition
2nd February 2023