Former president of the Industrial Court Deborah Thomas-Felix. – File photo
The Law Association of Trinidad and Tobago is calling on the government to consider amending the Industrial Relations Act to allow the Judicial and Legal Service Commission to reappoint members of the Industrial Court, rather than the Cabinet.
In a release on Friday, LATT said during their three-five year terms, Industrial Court members enjoyed security of tenure and so their independence was secure. But if they wanted to be reappointed, their independence became “fragile.”
It pointed out the power to reappoint members of the court, except the president, was vested in the Cabinet, which then advised the President of the country. Meanwhile, the president of the court was appointed by the President after consultation with the Chief Justice and the process was not transparent or guided by any objectively verifiable standards.
“The fear that judicial independence may be compromised in the system of reappointment arises from the fact that, whether through statutory corporations, such as WASA and T&TEC, or state enterprises, such as Caribbean Airlines, or directly as the employer of public servants, the government is a party to many disputes and matters before the Industrial Court.
“The uncomfortable situation created by law, therefore, is that judges of the Industrial Court are called upon to adjudicate on the merits of cases presented to it by the very person who has the power to decide whether the judge should be re-appointed at some later point in time.
“It is, therefore, not difficult to appreciate that trade unions representing workers employed by government entities might be justifiably concerned that a judge whose term of office is near expiration and who wishes to be re-appointed might hesitate before giving judgement against the Government. As our highest Court put it in a similar context, there is a risk that a judge seeking re-appointment might seek to commend herself to the Government as the authority ‘with power to meet her wishes.’”
While thanking outgoing president of the Court Deborah Thomas-Felix for her service and congratulating Heather Seale to her appointment, LATT said there could be the perception that the president of the court could be similarly compromised.
It said the President of TT, who appointed the president of the court, was elected by the government and, an incumbent court president may wish to avoid alienating the government in order to secure reappointment.
“It is incumbent upon us to note and to warn that for as long as judges of the Industrial Court are perceived to depend upon the government for their reappointment to the court, concerns about the Industrial Court’s judicial independence will resurface.”
The Industrial Court on Friday also issued a release thanking Thomas-Felix for her “outstanding leadership, guidance, and expertise.”
Thomas-Felix, the court’s sixth president and first female president, served from December 2011-2023. She spearheaded the court’s flagship Meet-with-the-Court Symposium, in which stakeholders discussed current issues of industrial relations and the global labour market, and instituted televised special sittings of the court for the opening of the law term.
“During her tenure, she demonstrated a strong commitment to improving both the rate of delivery of and the ease of access to justice, and on adopting a more professional approach to resolving disputes. Her leadership saw the successful implementation of several crucial initiatives, including the reformation of the pre-trial process, strengthening of the court’s administrative system and the enhancement of the judicial education training for judges.”
It described her as a formidable leader, adjudicator, trailblazer and champion for justice, and was certain she would continue to do so.