Five months after she was appointed as a lay-assessor of the Equal Opportunity Tribunal by President Paula-Mae Weekes, differently-abled attorney Veera Bhajan has threatened to sue over allegedly being blocked from taking up the position.
Guardian Media understands that Bhajan, who was born without arms and was awarded the Hummingbird Medal (Silver) in 2011, made the threat in a pre-action protocol letter sent to the Office of the Attorney General and the tribunal’s chairman Donna Prowell-Raphael, by her attorney Rajiv Chaitoo on July 30.
In the correspondence, obtained by Guardian Media, Chaitoo claimed that shortly after his client received her instrument of appointment on March 17, she made several attempts via telephone and email to contact the tribunal to begin her work there.
On April 27, she wrote to an administrative officer of the tribunal, as her previous attempts were allegedly unsuccessful.
Chaitoo pointed out that on May 19, Prowell-Rapahel responded and claimed that the tribunal did not have the “logistic and or financial wherewithal” to accommodate another lay-assessor.
In the letter, which was attached to Bhajan’s legal threat, Prowell-Rapahel also claimed that she did not require an additional lay-assessor based on the tribunal’s limited workflow at the time.
“Such an assumption would result in that person being paid a substantial salary to remain home and do nothing. This is not only inconsistent with the policy of the tribunal but is imprudent and irresponsible at this time of national detriment and parsimony,” Prowell-Raphael said in the letter to Bhajan.
In his correspondence, Chaitoo also pointed out that Prowell-Raphael criticised his client for using the wrong communication channel to officially liaise with the tribunal. He claimed his client categorically denied any wrongdoing.
“Notwithstanding her lawful appointment, to date, the chairman has unlawfully denied my client her opportunity and right to perform her lawful duties in accordance with her lawful presidential appointment,” Chaitoo said.
He claimed that the situation has severely hampered Bhajan, as she terminated her private practice in order to take up the three-year position.
“This was her sole source of income and exclusive means by which she supported herself and her family,” Chaitoo said.
In the letter, Chaitoo also noted that his client exchanged correspondence with the President and informed her of what transpired.
Attached to the legal threat was a letter from the President on July 13, in which she said that she had referred the matter to relevant authorities.
“In principle, I cannot in all the circumstances, reasonably have any objection to your considering your legal options, but I commend and thank you for your patience in awaiting a favourable resolution,” Weekes said in the letter.
In his letter, Chaitoo also referred to the Equal Opportunity Act, which established the tribunal and defined its remit.
Under the legislation, the tribunal consists of a chairman and two lay-assessors appointed by the President. While the Judicial and Legal Service Commission (JLSC) advises the President on the appointment of the chairman, the lay-assessors are selected solely by the President.
The tribunal is mandated to hear and determine discrimination complaints under the legislation, which are referred to it by the Equal Opportunity Commission.
Section 42 (7) of the legislation prescribes the circumstances in which a lay-assessor’s appointment may be terminated by the President on the recommendation of the chairman.
The circumstances are bankruptcy, misbehaving in office, being nominated or appointed to another office, being involved in a matter or interest which appears to the chairman to be incompatible with the function of lay-assessors or being incapable of performing their duties, for whatever reason.
“The unlawful discretion which is being exercised by the chairman in depriving my client of her legal rights are ultra vires the act and in excess of her jurisdiction as Chairman of the Tribunal,” Chaitoo said.
“As such, the decision made by the chairman in preventing, denying and failing to give effect to my client’s appointment is contrary to law, unfair, unreasonable, irrational, null and void,” he added.
In the letter, Chaitoo gave the parties seven days in which to facilitate his client beginning her duties before he files her proposed lawsuit.
Guardian Media understands that Prowell-Raphael’s lawyers responded to the letter and requested additional time to provide a comprehensive response to the allegations by September 3.
Chaitoo also received a response from the AG’s Office indicating that the matter was being urgently considered and requesting that he delay filing the lawsuit while an amicable solution is being sought.
Guardian Media also obtained additional correspondence from Chaitoo to Prowell-Raphael sent on August 3, requesting the disclosure of the alleged policy applied to his client and particulars of her (Bhajan) alleged improper communication on the issue.