Activist appeals dismissal of lawsuit over Erla’s extension as CoP

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Police Commissioner Erla Harewood-Christopher. – File photo by Angelo Marcelle

THREE Appeal Court judges have been asked to overturn the High Court’s dismissal of a lawsuit challenging the extension of the term of Police Commissioner Erla Harewood-Christopher.

On March 4, Justices of Appeal Prakash Moosai, Mark Mohammed and James Aboud heard arguments from attorneys representing UNC activist Ravi Balgobin Maharaj and the Cabinet.

On January 16, Justice Ricky Rahim held the year-long extension was not unconstitutional and did not trespass on the functions of the Police Service Commission (PSC).

Harewood-Christopher turned 60 on May 15, 2023, and the extension was from that date to May 14 this year.

Three months earlier, on February 3, 2023, she was appointed this country’s first female top cop.

On May 9, 2023, the National Security Minister announced that Cabinet had agreed and confirmed the extension of her contract, in keeping with section 75 of the Police Service Act, which allows the President, on the advice of the Cabinet, to extend the term of a first-division officer who is due to retire, and the Police Commissioner to extend the term of second-division officers.

Police officers, who benefit can receive two further one-year extensions on the basis of annual performance reviews.

Maharaj challenged the Cabinet’s decision.

His attorney Anand Ramlogan, SC, contended section 75 of the act was inconsistent with section 123 of the Constitution, which gave the PSC the power to recommend the appointment or removal of the commissioner and deputy commissioners of police (DCPs) to be approved by the House of Representatives.

He said when the legislation was amended in 2006 to include the extension provision, it was intended to insulate the office of the commissioner from political control.

“A politically-controlled Commissioner of Police could infect all the ranks,” he said. He also said even though the provision was passed by Parliament, it could still be unconstitutional and reviewed by the courts.

“It simply means that all of them got it wrong. It is for the court to determine the proper interpretation.

“If it were about increasing the retirement age, I would not be here,” he said.

Ramlogan said there was no difference between “appointing and extension,” as was done by the Cabinet, reminding that the office of commissioner was a constitutionally important one because of the powers the office-holder exercised.

“All the coercive powers of the State are with this office-holder (CoP).”

Ramlogan also said not even the President could grant an extension. He maintained it was the sole province of the PSC.

In his ruling, Rahim held there was a difference between appointing a commissioner and extending a commissioner’s term.

“There is therefore a marked substantive difference between the appointment of a CoP and the extension of the service of the incumbent and the two are in no way to be understood and treated as the same.

“This of course is consistent with the Parliament having retained the power to extend in the Executive to keep the qualified, appointed incumbent CoP in service for a limited period so long as the President considers that it is within the national interest so to do,” the judge said.

In response, Russell Martineau, SC, said the Cabinet’s extension was a valid exercise of executive power.

“Whether it is the President or Cabinet, that is an executive power,” he said.

He said while the appointment of a commissioner had parliamentary oversight, it was the Government that had the final say, since only a simple majority was needed.

“Cabinet can give advice, but it is for the President to take it or leave it,” he said.

Martineau maintained only the Cabinet could advise the President on national issues to consider before invoking the provision.

“Who can tell you what is going on in the country besides Cabinet? The electorate put them there for that.”

He also agreed with Rahim’s assertion that an extension was different from an appointment, since it dealt with issues concerning terms and conditions of employment, which were the Cabinet’s purview.

“If Parliament wanted it differently, it would have said so,” he said.

Maharaj’s appeal raises 12 complaints of the judge’s findings