Former United National Congress (UNC) senator Wayne Sturge has been given the green light to pursue his constitutional lawsuit over Finance Minister Colm Imbert’s previous 20-month delay in calling a meeting of Joint Select Committee (JSC) on Energy Affairs.
In a 26-page judgement, delivered electronically yesterday, High Court Judge Ronnie Boodoosingh ruled that the court did have the jurisdiction to hear the case.
Boodoosingh said: “This case contemplated that the court could fulfil its role as guardian of the Constitution and at the same time honour separation of powers and leave Parliament to its business as the court performs its business. It is worth repeating that the court’s jurisdiction is not to be lightly surrendered.”
Boodoosingh also ruled that Sturge’s complaint did not fall under parliamentary privilege.
“There is, in my view, a difference between the procedures adopted by a Committee, which would fall within the ambit of parliamentary privilege, and the omission to call the Committee at all as to whether that failure amounts to a breach of the Constitution,” Boodoosingh added, as he maintained that Parliament deals with procedure and the court with compliance.
In his preliminary ruling, Boodoosingh did not consider the substantive legal issues raised by Sturge, which will be dealt with when the case eventually goes on trial before him.
In the substantive lawsuit, Sturge is alleging that Imbert’s handling of the situation breached the separation of powers and effectively precluded Opposition members from scrutinizing the Government’s handling of Petrotrin.
Sturge has also suggested that Imbert’s decision was based on a desire to insulate his Government from criticism.
While Sturge admits that Parliament’s Standing Orders does not give a fixed time-line for the holding of a JSC meeting, he claims that the court was still empowered to review Imbert’s position.
Through the lawsuit, Sturge is seeking declarations that Imbert, as chairman of the JSC, acted unlawfully, illegally, and unconstitutionally.
Sturge initially sought to temporarily block the sale of Petrotrin’s Pointe-a-Pierre refinery but was forced to withdraw the injunction application minutes before it was about to be heard by Boodoosingh, after Imbert agreed to set the meeting.
Sturge was represented by Gerald Ramdeen, Umesh Maharaj, and Dayadai Harripaul. The Office of the Attorney General was represented by Fyard Hosein, SC, Rishi Dass, Kendra Mark-Gordon, and Amrita Ramsook.
Speaker of the House of Representatives Brigid Annisette-George was represented by Deborah Peake, SC, Ravi Heffes-Doon, Savi Ramhit, and Diane Katwaroo.
Imbert was represented by Martin Daly, SC, Jason Mootoo, and Nairob Smart.
Petrotrin was shut down on November 30, 2018, after recording successive losses and incurring billions of dollars in debt.
The State-owned company was split into four companies- Trinidad Petroleum Holding Limited, Heritage Petroleum Company Limited, Paria Fuel Trading Company Limited, and Guaracara Refinery Company Limited.
Trinidad Petroleum holds the former company’s debt obligations, while Heritage operates its oil exploration and production. Paria Fuel Trading manages the trading and marketing of imported fuel products and Guaracara Refinery Company Limited holds the refinery and its assets.
In September, last year, Finance Minister Colm Imbert announced that Patriotic Energies and Technologies, owned by the Oilfield Workers’ Trade Union (OWTU), won a US$700 million bid for Paria Fuel Trading and Guaracara Refinery.
As part of the deal, the Government agreed to a three-year moratorium on the payment and gave the company an additional 10 years to pay the money at a fair market interest rate.