AG’s lawsuit against THA over Watson Duke to go ahead

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

File photo: Watson Duke

A judge cannot be faulted for failing to strike out an interpretation claim over Watson Duke’s being appointed Tobago House of Assembly (THA) deputy chief secretary while he was still president of the Public Services Association (PSA) and a member of the Registration, Recognition and Certification Board (RRCB) of the Ministry of Labour.

On Monday, Justices of Appeal Mira Dean-Armorer and Malcolm Holdip ruled that the case before Justice Margaret Mohammed can proceed, although Duke will no longer be part of it.

Mohammed will also have to consider whether the claim against THA chief secretary Farley Augustine should remain.

In October 2022, the judges heard the appeal, which challenged Mohammed’s decision not to throw out the interpretation claim against Duke and Augustine.

In their ruling, the Appeal Court judges held Mohammed could not be faulted for holding that the matter was not academic, as there were two periods of overlap when Duke held office in all the organisations before his respective resignations took effect. Those were December 9-31, 2021, from when he was appointed THA deputy chief secretary until his resignation from the PSA was to take effect; and from December 9-20, 2021, for the registration board.

Former attorney general Faris Al-Rawi filed the claim ten days after Duke’s Progressive Democratic Patriots (PDP) won a landslide victory in the THA election on December 6, 2021.

Chief Secretary Farley Augustine gave Duke a three-month ultimatum to sever ties with the union and the board, but Al-Rawi suggested he should step down immediately.

Duke, Augustine and the THA filed for the case to be struck out, as they claimed it became academic, since Duke eventually resigned from those posts less than a month after the election.

Delivering a preliminary decision in April 2022, Mohammed dismissed the applications, ruling the case was not academic, since she still had to determine whether Duke was in breach of the THA Act and Industrial Relations Act for several weeks before he eventually resigned.

She removed Duke as a defendant in the interpretation claim, as he was not properly joined as a party, but included him as an interested party.

But in their ruling, the Appeal Court judges set aside that order, saying Duke should not have been made an interested party without his consent. This means Duke is no longer a defendant or an interested party in the AG’s claim.

In arguments before Dean-Armorer and Holdip, the THA’s lawyer, Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, SC, said the case was a waste of the court’s time.

In his submissions, John Jeremie, SC, who led Augustine’s legal team, said the judge did not follow the principles of law and also erred when she made his client a defendant.

Responding to the submissions on behalf of the Attorney General’s Office, Fyard Hosein, SC, maintained the case was not academic, as the judge’s eventual decision in the substantive case would help provide guidance for appointments in the future.

“This is in the public interest because it is likely to occur again,” Hosein said.

On behalf of the RRCB, attorney Vanessa Gopaul said Mohammed only had to mull over public-interest considerations if she initially felt the case was academic, which she did not.

Augustine was involved in a war of words with Duke over the handling of funding for a group of folk performers from Roxborough. The dispute eventually led to Duke’s resigning as deputy chief secretary in September 2022.

In December 2022, Augustine, new deputy chief secretary Dr Faith B Yisrael and all THA secretaries resigned from Duke’s PDP party.

The THA and Augustine were also represented by Kiel Taklalsingh and Lesley Gray. Kent Samlal, Jared Jagroo, Natasha Bisram and Vishaal Siewsaran represented Duke.

Rishi Dass, Kerwyn Garcia, Tenille Ramkissoon, and Kadine Matthew are also representing the AG’s Office.