Judge slams tribunal, chairman over Veera Bhajan’s appointment

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

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“PURE HATE and acting normal” were the words of a popular hit of dancehall artist General Grant playing on repeat in the head of a High Court judge as she wrote her decision in the lawsuit involving the Equal Opportunity Tribunal.

Lay assessor Veera Bhajan brought a case against the tribunal and its chairman, Donna Prowell-Raphael, for failing to give effect to her presidential appointment.

On Tuesday Justice Avason Quinlan-Williams granted Bhajan all the declarations she sought against the tribunal and its chairman over their refusal to have her take up her position since March 17, when she took the oath.

She was also awarded damages to cover her financial loss from the date of her appointment, all the benefits owed to her as set out in the 100th report of the Salaries Review Commission, and continuing until the end of her three-year term, once she remains in office, as well as interest on these sums.

For her embarrassment and humiliation, she was awarded $100,000 and for injury under those headings, another $100,000. These will be paid by the tribunal and its chairman.

The Attorney General will have to pay an additional $250,000 in vindicatory damages on behalf of the State to register the “public outrage” over what occurred and the gravity of the breaches to Bhajan’s rights.

Quinlan-Williams also granted all the declarations sought, including that the failure by the tribunal and its chairman to give effect to her appointment was unlawful, contrary to law, in excess of their jurisdiction, abuse of power, in conflict with the Equal Opportunity Act, in bad faith, null and void and deprived her of her legitimate expectation.

The judge also ordered the tribunal and its chairman to comply with the presidential appointment and granted an injunction restraining them from preventing her from fulfilling her duties and receiving her salary and allowances.

In addition to the compensation ordered, the tribunal and its chairman will also have to pay Bhajan’s legal costs.

Quinlan-Williams admitted it was a difficult judgment to write, but not because of the facts and law.

“It was difficult to pen.” She said as she tried to quiet her mind, she kept hearing Grant’s song, Pure Hate ‘n actin’ Normal.

She also said it was inexplicable the matter had reached the court.

In a summary of her decision, Quinlan-Williams said she chose not to repeat many of Bhajan’s accomplishments, since they were hers and she had nothing to prove.

“She is a whole person with nothing to prove,” she said. Bhajan, she added, had to make adjustments “to live in this world and society we take for granted.

“Society has done little to adjust to meet her needs. She bears the burden of adjusting to make her life manageable,” the judge said, adding that Bhajan’s life was the best testament to social welfare. “Her experience is from the time of her birth. She has lived it,” she added.

The judge added it was no surprise Bhajan was chosen as a lay assessor because of her strong will and fortitude.

In some harsh words for actions of the tribunal’s actions, Quinlan-Williams said what was “most disturbing” was the communication to the president about the lay assessor “as if she was not a real person who existed and who was invisible.”

What was also “off-putting” was the chairman’s mentioning the difficulties Bhajan would allegedly face in cases of emergencies, to be lifted and carried out of the building.

“She can walk.”

Quinlan-Williams was also critical of Prowell-Raphael’s enquiries of Bhajan’s last employer about special arrangements needed for her,

“She can speak for herself. She has her own voice.”

The judge said another startling aspect of the evidence was that after Bhajan’s appointment, the chairman had not spoken to her.

“What is up with that?”

On Prowell-Raphael’s own appointment as chairman, the judge suggested she sit and reflect whether she was the “best fit for the tribunal.”

She also pointed to President Paula-Mae Weekes’s own words in correspondence to the chairman, in an attempt to resolve the impasse, that “it would be a supreme irony if the tribunal should be accused of ableism or worse.”

It had also been submitted that Prowell-Raphael had questioned Bhajan’s suitability to sit on the tribunal and tried to have her appointment revoked on the basis of her disability and the possibility of her being biased because of it.

Quinlan-Williams said even the Attorney General tried. She said no regard was paid to the tribunal as an institution or its mandate to prevent discrimination and promote equal opportunity for people of unequal status and those who had to adjust to living in this world, “or how it would look for the rest of us.”

She said it was no wonder Bhajan was appointed to serve on the tribunal.

Bhajan, who was born without arms, was awarded the Hummingbird Medal (Silver) in 2011.

The tribunal and its chairman in its defence claimed it suffered logistical issues and had neither the space nor the money for another lay assessor.

However, the Equal Opportunity Act provides for a chairman and two lay assessors for the tribunal to be lawfully constituted, the judge pointed out.

On Tuesday, the tribunal announced it was adjourning all matters for December because it could not facilitate in-person or virtual hearings.

After the judgment, it said, in another statement, it has been guided by best practice and professional advice at all times.

“The tribunal respects the ruling of the Honourable court and will meet with attorneys to determine its next steps. The tribunal looks forward to continuing to serve the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago.”

Bhajan was represented by a team of attorneys led by Alvin Fitzpatrick, SC, which included Rajiv Persad, Michael Rooplal, Shari Fitzpatrick, Rajiv Chaitoo, Clay Hackett and Gabriel Hernandez.

Representing the EOT and its chairman were Senior Counsel Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj and attorneys Kiel Taklalsingh, Leon Kalicharan, and Karina Singh.

The Attorney General was represented by Rishi Dass, Tenille Ramkissoon, Svetlana Dass, and Karissa Singh.