The Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha (SDMS) has offered to delay pursuing its proposed lawsuit against Cabinet over its recent move to revamp the national policy for awarding scholarships for tertiary education, if it agrees to revert to its previous policy for students writing their final Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination (CAPE) exams later this year.
Lawyers representing the SDMS made the offer on Saturday as they responded to a request from Cabinet for more time to respond to its legal threat, made earlier last week.
In the letter, obtained by Guardian Media, the SDMS legal team indicated that the Cabinet would have at least until Friday to respond to its letter as it intends to file its judicial review proceedings next Monday.
“We thought that it was obvious given that students are awaiting a decision as to whether or not they would be awarded scholarships, which will in turn materially affect their prospectus of tertiary education is a matter which should be dealt with on an urgent basis,” attorney Rhea Khan said.
“Consequently, unreasonable delay in the hearing and determination of the challenge of the impugned decision of Cabinet would render any such challenge nugatory,” she added.
In the pre-action protocol letter sent to Cabinet’s Secretariat last week Monday, the religious body, whose school board manages 43 primary and five secondary schools as well as 20 early childhood centres, claimed that the new policy is “mired with ambiguity, internal inconsistency and patent absurdity.”
“It is systematically unfair and wreaks of maladministration,” Khan claimed, as she contended that it frustrated the legitimate expectation of students, who chose their courses of study without knowledge of the new policy.
According to the SDMS, it became concerned when the policy was first proposed by Cabinet in November last year, and then modified without consultation before it was published by the Ministry of Education earlier this month.
Under the proposal, the number of scholarships awarded to students based on academic performance was reduced from 400 to 100, with 500 new bursaries being introduced.
At the time, the criteria for such bursaries included the alignment of a student’s course of study with priority areas of national development; extracurricular activities and community service; academic performance, a purpose statement, and a financial means test.
While Cabinet’s proposal gave per cent points for each category, the notice published by the ministry allegedly did not feature such a grading system.
“Perhaps as a symptom of the arbitrary and capricious nature of this new scholarship award system, the ministry has now, by this new document, inter alia removed the respective weighting of the assessment criteria thereby leaving a potential applicant in the dark as to what criteria he/she should focus on or place more emphasis,” Khan said.
It also noted that while Cabinet’s proposal stated that academic performance would count for 30 per cent, it was totally excluded from the ministry’s notice.
“It is clear from the published policy document of the Ministry of Education that while ostensibly there may have been some rationalization of expenditure on these scholarships, the Cabinet of T&T has sought to severely curtail the merit-based, transparent and objective criteria for the award of scholarships and replace same with a conspicuously vague, irrational and arbitrary methodology of selection for a scholarship,” she said.
She was careful to note that if her client was required to pursue the lawsuit, it would do so in the interest of all affected students and not just those enrolled in its schools.
“Our client would take this step on behalf of all students and sectors of the national community that believe in a society predicated upon principles of meritocracy and transparency,” she said.
Al-Rawi: Political mischief
Questions have been raised over the fact that Zelica Haynes-Soo Hon, a partner at Al-Rawi, Haynes-Soo Hon and Company, the law chambers of Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi’s wife, was retained to respond to the Maha Sabha’s initial letter on behalf of the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM).
Responding to the issue in a report in another newspaper, Al-Rawi denied any wrongdoing or involvement.
He noted that the firm was forbidden from receiving work from the Office of the Attorney General but could perform work for State-companies and other State bodies such as the OPM.
Describing the issue as political mischief, Al-Rawi claimed that spouses of Government Ministers, who are qualified attorneys, have performed work for the State through their law firms in the past.
The Maha Sabha is also being represented by Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, SC, Chaguanas West MP Dinesh Rambally, Kiel Taklalsingh and Stefan Ramkissoon.