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Veera Bhajan

The Equal Opportunity Tribunal (EOT) and its chairman Donna Prowell-Raphael have come under stiff criticism for their adamance in blocking EOT lay assessor Veera Bhajan from taking up her appointment.

In ruling that the EOT and Prowell-Rapahel acted illegally and beyond their statutory remit in taking the action yesterday, High Court Judge Avason Quinlan-Williams noted that the lyrics of local dancehall artist General Grant’s hit “Pure Hate” resonated with her throughout her consideration of the case.

“Pure hate and acting normal,” Quinlan-Williams repeated.

In addition to issuing declarations against the tribunal and Prowell-Raphael, Quinlan-Williams ordered that Bhajan be paid her salary and benefits which were withheld since March, plus interest and that Bhajan’s appointment be immediately facilitated.

The tribunal and Prowell-Raphael were ordered to pay $100,000 in damages for the distress and embarrassment they caused Bhajan.

Justice Quinlan-Williams also ordered $250,000 in vindicatory damages to highlight the court’s strong feelings over what transpired.

“There ought to be a sense of public outrage over what occurred,” Quinlan-Williams said as she said the attempts to block the appointment were disturbing and off-putting.

She said she had difficulties in writing the judgement, not based on the legal issues before her but in striking a balance in being critical of the conduct and being judicious in her choice of words to describe it.

“It is inexplicable that this matter is before a court,” she said.

Quinlan-Williams noted that based on the evidence before her, Prowell-Raphael never spoke directly with Bhajan after she was appointed by President Paula-Mae Weekes on March 17.

“What is up with that?” Quinlan-Williams asked.

The judge also questioned whether Prowell-Raphael would reconsider her continued role on the tribunal.

“I wonder if at the end of this saga, after all is said and done and when there is an opportunity to reflect on decisions made and actions taken, whether the second defendant would, in a quiet time, reflect on whether she is the best fit for chair of the Equal Opportunity Tribunal,” Quinlan-Williams said.

Quinlan-Williams noted that the challenges persisted even after the Office of the President and Office of the Attorney General stood by the legality of the appointment and supported Bhajan’s legal challenge.

“There was no regard to the mandate of the tribunal to prevent discrimination and to promote equal opportunities for people of unequal status. There was no regard for how it would look to the rest of us that a person who is lawfully appointed by Her Excellency cannot get her just dues from the EOT and its chair,” she said.

Quinlan-Williams commended Bhajan for having the will and fortitude to pursue the lawsuit.

“It is not anyone and everyone who can take on that fight but the Claimant can and she has. It is no wonder, therefore, she was appointed to the EOT,” she said.

In her judgement, Quinlan-Williams noted that over the past few months, the tribunal and Prowell-Raphael gave varying baseless reasons on why Bhajan should not be allowed to assume her duties, including the tribunal’s limited financial resources, its inability to accommodate a member with a disability and allegations that Bhajan may be perceived to be biased based on her disability.

Quinlan-Williams soundly rejected claims that Bhajan, who was born without arms and received the Hummingbird Medal (Silver) in 2011, did not have 10 years combined experience in law and social work as required for the lay-assessor position.

“As to her qualifications to hold the post of lay-assessor, her life has been the best testament to social welfare. She has lived it. Her experiences are from the time of her birth,” she said.

Under the Equal Opportunity Act, the tribunal consists of a chairman and two lay-assessors. While the Judicial and Legal Service Commission (JLSC) advises the President on the appointment of the chairman, the lay-assessors are selected 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.

In a press release moments after the judgement, the tribunal said it respected the decision but continued to deny any wrongdoing.

“The Tribunal has been guided by best practices and professional advice at all time,” it said.

“The Tribunal respects the ruling of the Honourable Court and will meet with its attorneys to determine its next steps. The Tribunal looks forward to continuing to serve the citizens of T&T.”

Earlier yesterday, the tribunal issued a separate and unrelated release in which it announced that its cases scheduled for hearing in December were adjourned, as it remains without access to facilities to conduct in-person and virtual hearings.

Bhajan was represented by Alvin Fitzpatrick, SC, Rajiv Persad, Michael Rooplal, Rajiv Chaitoo, Shari Fitzpatrick and Gabriel Hernandez. The EOT and its chairman were represented by Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, SC, Leon Kalicharan, Kiel Taklalsingh and Karina Singh. Rishi Dass, Tenille Ramkissoon, Svetlana Dass and Karissa Singh represented the AG’s Office.