A High Court judge has ruled that Cabinet acted improperly when it assigned State housing to Senate vice president Nigel De Freitas in October 2017.
Delivering a 23-page judgment in a case brought by former government minister and political activist Devant Maharaj late last week, Justice Kevin Ramcharan ruled that while Cabinet had the authority to make the allocation, it followed an incorrect procedure for doing so.
In the case, Ramcharan was called on to interpret the role of the Salaries Review Commission (SRC) under the Constitution.
The SRC is mandated to conduct periodic reviews of the salaries and benefits to be conferred on senior office holders including MPs, judges, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), and the Solicitor General on instructions of the President.
The SRC produces its report, which passes from the President to the Prime Minister. After being considered by Cabinet, the report is tabled in both houses of Parliament.
In his judgment, Ramcharan noted that the SRC’s reports are not binding.
“If it were the intention of the drafters of the Constitution that the SRC was, in fact, setting the salaries by their reports, they would have made that much clearer and would have stated that the terms and conditions as contained in the report were the terms and conditions of the relevant officers,” Ramcharan said.
He also noted that as Parliament is not required to debate and pass the report, although it may, the Executive or Cabinet has the responsibility to effect such changes.
Ramcharan suggested that Cabinet would be required to follow the advice contained in the report and must give a valid explanation if it intends to reject or modify recommendations.
“If Cabinet were free to reject or add to the recommendation of the SRC as they pleased (with the exception of judicial officers), it would render the body superfluous, and their inclusion in the Constitution as almost redundant,” Ramcharan said.
He suggested that if changes are to be made, Cabinet must identify them and lay the information in Parliament together with the report.
“If the intention of the laying of Parliament is to publish to the public at large, it would be defeating the purpose if Cabinet could derogate from these recommendations without also publishing any changes made,” Ramcharan said.
According to the evidence in the case, Maharaj filed the lawsuit after learning in a newspaper report that a one-bedroom unit at the Victoria Keyes Development had been assigned to De Freitas.
Maharaj wrote to the then Housing Minister, who informed him that Cabinet had approved the accommodation as De Freitas resides in Tobago and had to make frequent trips to Trinidad to perform his parliamentary duties.
In his lawsuit, Maharaj pointed to the SRC’s 98th report from April 2014, in which it rejected a proposal for temporary State housing in such circumstances in favour of a monthly housing allowance.
Ramcharan noted that housing for Parliamentarians from Tobago was proposed to the SRC but was rejected in its report.
In his judgment, Ramcharan noted that all MPs and members of the Senate are entitled to accommodation whenever there are late sittings.
“The manner of such accommodation is not prescribed, and it is totally within the remit of Parliament to utilise whatever method thought best to provide such accommodation, whether by hotel or otherwise,” he said.
Maharaj was represented by Anand Ramlogan, SC, Gerald Ramdeen, Douglas Bayley and Alvin Pariagsingh.
Douglas Mendes, SC, Michael Quamina and Amrita Ramsook represented the Office of the Attorney General.