L to R: Speaker of the House of Representatives Bridgid Annisette-George MP, and Leader of the Opposition Kamla Persad-Bissessar SC MP, during the heated Parliament sitting on Thursday 21 October 2021. (Images courtesy Parliament Secretariat)

One attorney-at-law has added his voice to those questioning the legality of the guidelines employed by Speaker of the House, Bridgid Annisette-George MP, during the fiery Parliamentary session which took place on Thursday this week, over a motion to remove the President from office, which had been brought by the Opposition Leader.

According to Attorney-at-Law Dave Persad, Speaker Annisette-George has opened the door for serious legal challenge of her Guidelines, which must come under judicial review.

“The guidelines issued on the 19th October, 2021 by the Speaker of the House of Representatives are illegal, contrary to the Constitution, the Standing Orders of the House of Representatives and established parliamentary practice and procedure and are consequently unconstitutional, null and void,” the attorney says in a statement released this morning.

Persad asserts the issue has nothing to do with UNC or PNM governments, “but rather the upholding of the provisions of the Constitution of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago and the Rule of Law.”

“What transpired in the Parliament on the 21st October, 2021 is a grave, deliberate and malicious attack on the Constitution and a blatant disregard for the rule of law,” he maintains.

The attorney’s legal opinion and arguments on the matter, follow…

(a)        Section 36 (1) (a) (b) (d) of the Constitution sets out the procedure for the President’s removal from office. The first step is for a motion to be proposed by a member of the House of Representatives seeking an investigation by a tribunal to be headed by the Chief Justice and four other judges appointed by him. Such a motion must give “full particulars” of “the grounds on which his [the President’s] removal from office is proposed”, and it must be signed by “not less than one-third of the total membership of the House of Representatives.”

This threshold was met by the Opposition securing one-third of the members of the House of Representatives. Rule 40 (a) to (h) of the Standing Orders of the House of Representatives deals exclusively with the conditions of admissibility of the motion. There is no issue here as the subject motion was accepted by the Speaker and placed before the House pursuant to the relevant Standing Order.

(b)       The next constitutional step is for the vote to be taken. According to section 36 (c), the motion is to be adopted by “the vote of not less than two-thirds of the total membership of the Senate and the House of Representatives assembled together”.

When the Senate joins the House of Representatives, what is the function of both Houses? Their collective function is to deal with the motion before them. How do these Honourable ladies and gentlemen collectively confront the motion in this unicameral setting? I respectfully submit that they confront the motion pursuant to Standing Orders 41 (1) to (12) and Standing Orders 42 to 53. These Standing Orders exclusively deal with the issue of motions before the House. This motion is like any other motion moved in the House save and except that it  is the first time that such a motion is being moved in the House of Representatives pursuant to section 36 of the Constitution. But it remains a MOTION.

These Standing Orders are made pursuant to sections 56 (1) and 20 of the Constitution. The purpose of these Standing Orders, as stated therein, “contain rules for the conduct of the proceedings of the House and for the exercise of the powers possessed by the House” (Standing Orders of the House of Representatives).

Before enquiring into the Standing Orders of the House relating to motions, one must examine the very nature of a motion under the Westminster model of Parliament as exists in Trinidad and Tobago.

In Parliamentary law a motion is, “a proposal made in a meeting, in a form suitable for its consideration and action, that the meeting (or the organization for which the meeting is acting) take a certain action or view…” (Black’s Law Dictionary, 8th Edition pg. 1036).

A cursory review of various English dictionaries states in essence that a “motion” is a formal proposition in a deliberative assembly. And, “deliberative” means the act of considering reasons or arguments for and against something so as to reach a conclusion or decision.

In the United Kingdom, under the UK Parliament website (2021), a motion is defined as “a proposal for debate or decision in the House of Commons. A motion must be proposed (moved) before any debate or vote can take place in Parliament”.

It is clear that “a motion” is deliberative in nature and it is my respectful view that this meaning ought to have been afforded to this motion. In other words, inherent in the parliamentary meaning of “motion” is a right to debate.

Under the Standing Orders of the Municipal Corporation Act (1990) as amended, and fashioned after the Standing Orders of the House of Representatives, rule 19 (CTTRC Standing Orders) states, “when a motion has been made and, if necessary, seconded the Chairman shall propose the question for consideration, and, after debate, if any, shall put it for decision of the Council”.

Rule 41 of the Standing Orders of the House of Representatives, under the rubric “Motion- General Rules”, states very clearly at Rule 9, “After a motion has been moved and where necessary seconded, the Speaker will propose the motion for debate in the House”.

Both the Senate and the House of Representatives must debate the motion in the manner set out in the Standing Orders, particularly in accordance with Chapter V (Public Business) of the said Orders. Only then can a vote be properly taken.

It is my respectful submission that the Speaker violated the Standing Orders. The Speaker is not entitled to look outside of the Standing Orders especially when the procedures dealing with such matters are clear, precise and have been historically utilised. To do otherwise would be to create her own Standing Orders, which she did illegally.

Thus far, research has revealed that it remains unprecedented in the Commonwealth that such guidelines imposed unilaterally by a Speaker of the Parliament can lawfully circumvent debate on such a motion.

Even if there exists some law or rule, known or unknown, that gives the Speaker sole discretion to regulate the proceedings, her discretion cannot be exercised arbitrarily, unreasonably, irrationally and/or in violation of the Standing Orders and the Constitution. There is a saying that “those who feel they are given God-like powers, must also understand they must behave like God!”

To this end the Speaker of the House has unnecessarily and/or unwittingly exposed her Office to a legal challenge by way of judicial review of her so-called guidelines that effectively stymied any debate.