High Court sets aside $20m award to ex-Vindra Naipaul-Coolman accused

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Justice Joan Charles –

A HIGH Court judge has set aside the $20 million award to the nine men who were freed of the murder of businesswoman Vindra Naipaul-Coolman.

On Wednesday, Justice Joan Charles ruled that the civil claim filed by the nine men had not been properly served on the Office of the Attorney General in keeping with the procedure set out by the State Liability and Proceedings Act for the acceptance of service on behalf of the State.

Attorney General Reginald Armour, SC, announced the judge’s order to set aside the multi-million-dollar judgment in a statement.

He said Charles concluded “that the rules relating to service of originating documents and notices on the State are clear and mandatory – as such they must be complied with.

“The result is that the claimants have not established that the claim form and statement of case were served; consequently, an important, mandatory condition for permission to enter judgment against the defendant…was not met.

“It follows that the judgment was wrongly entered and must be set aside.”

This means that the award of damages made against the State in favour of the nine and the default judgment have been set aside.

Armour said he was pleased with the court’s ruling, and thanked the State’s legal team of Rolston Nelson, SC, Ria Mohammed-Davidson and Elena Araujo for the “important victory.”

In January, High Court Master Martha Alexander ordered the compensation for Shervon and Devon Peters, their brother Anthony Gloster, Joel Fraser, Ronald Armstrong, brothers Keida and Jameel Garcia, Marlon Trimmingham, and Antonio Charles.

She awarded the men $2.1 million each in an assessment of their malicious prosecution claim, which went undefended by the State. Alexander’s assessment came two years after Charles gave the nine permission to obtain judgment in default.

Two days after the court’s award, Armour held a news conference and revealed that the first time his office heard of the malicious-prosecution claim was when the decision was given.

He said the file had gone missing.

Nelson, a former judge, was retained to advise on the “provenance of the decision” and the next move in the debacle, while another retired judge, Stanley John, was hired to probe the disappearance of the file and identify what went wrong in the Office of the AG that led to the State’s failing to defend the claim.

On February 7, in a bizarre development involving the file, John said it had been found and handed over to the acting solicitor general. He gave no details of where the file was found, or by whom.

He has since handed in his interim report on his investigation. He led a two-member team which included former ACP Pamela Schullera-Hinds.

The nine men filed the lawsuit almost four years after they were freed of the charges in late May 2016.

The Office of the Attorney General entered an appearance in the case. Still, it failed to defend the claim, leading to the group’s legal team, led by Anand Ramlogan SC, successfully obtaining a default judgment against it in January 2021.

Armour said the reason the State did not mount a defence was because the case file went missing after being delivered to the Solicitor General’s Office.

In its application, the State said the publication of Alexander’s judgment “had the effect of bringing this matter to the attention of the Attorney General.”

It also said the judgment had to be set aside, since it was irregular and wrongly entered, since the claimants did not comply with the proper procedure for serving documents in civil proceedings.

It said when the document was not served on the Solicitor General but on an individual not designated as an officer authorised to accept service, and on two clerks in the Chief State Solicitor’s department.

The application also noted that the malicious-prosecution claim was fundamentally flawed, since the charges against the nine were fully ventilated in the criminal justice system and the decision of the Director of Public Prosecution to file an indictment could not demonstrate malice.

“Proving malice is a high hurdle.”

The setting-aside application also said, “To allow the default judgment against the defendants to stand would undermine the rule of law and the administration of justice.

“It would expose the defendant to liability in damages for malicious prosecution whenever an accused person is acquitted by a jury. It would undercut the specific regime for entry of default judgment against the State…It would also allow sizeable awards of damages to be made on the basis of collective, rather than individualised, evidence from litigants.”

Also appearing for the nine men were attorneys Renuka Rambhajan, Ganesh Saroop and Natasha Bisram.