Local government election lawsuit to be heard in January

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Minister of Rural Development and Local Government Faris Al-Rawi – File photo

A legal challenge against the Government’s decision to have proclaimed parts of the recently passed Local Government Reform Act that could allow for local government elections to be delayed by a year will go to trial in January.

The date was set by Justice Jacqueline Wilson during a virtual chamber court hearing on Friday.

The lawsuit was filed earlier this week by attorneys for activist Ravi Balgobin-Maharaj, who says as a voter in the Maracas/Santa Margarita electoral district, he is aggrieved by the decision taken by Cabinet and announced recently by Rural Development and Local Government Minister Faris Al-Rawi.

The bill was passed on June 14 with a simple majority in Parliament. The Opposition UNC has called on President Paula-Mae Weekes not to proclaim the legislation, which will extend the terms of current local government representatives and likely delay the election.

The judge did not give the media permission by to cover Friday’s hearing, but Newsday was told she set dates for the filing of submissions and affidavits by December 28, with the hearing of oral submissions on January 9 and 10 at a virtual hearing.

At Friday’s hearing, attorneys for both sides agreed to have the matter heard as a rolled-up hearing, meaning the judge will hear the judicial review application and the substantive lawsuit as one.

Senior Counsel Douglas Mendes told the judge the State was objecting to leave being granted, but since the matter was an urgent one, the rolled-up hearing would be better.

Attorney Jayanti Lutchmedial, who appears for Balgobin-Maharaj, asked for an early hearing – before December 3 – since, she said, beyond that date, there might be people holding office without lawful authority and being paid out of the public purse.

She said it was hoped that a decision would be given before the end of the local government term on December 3.

However, Mendes said he did not think a catastrophe would take place if, beyond December 3, people continued in office, adding also that the outer limit by when the election could be called – without the change to the law – was March 3.

Mendes urged the judge not to sacrifice accuracy for speed.

After hearing submissions by both attorneys, Wilson set the dates for the hearing of Balgobin-Maharaj’s challenge.

Lutchmedial also raised the issue of the injunction which Balgobin-Maharaj has asked for to restrain all councillors and aldermen from holding office beyond December 3.

However, the judge said she may have to grant leave first before she can grant interim orders and that will change the way the matter will progress.

In his lawsuit, Balgobin-Maharaj wants the court’s permission to have the government’s decision reviewed. His lawsuit contends the decision of the Cabinet was unauthorised, contrary to law and an abuse of power to “retrospectively apply an amendment to the law to increase the terms of councillors which ultimately delays the local government elections.”

The activist also wants declarations to put a stop to the alleged government plan to postpone the local election, saying any attempt to delay it by retrospectively applying the amendments to the Municipal Corporations Act would be a fraud committed on the electorate, in bad faith, and would amount to improper use of the legislation.

Balgobin-Maharaj is also asking to court to quash the declaration that local government elections are now due between December 4, 2023, and March 4, 2024, and the decision to extend the term of office of all councillors and aldermen.

It also said it was “inherently wrong” for the Government to amend the law “under the guise of local government reform, only to attempt to apply those amendments implicitly in a piecemeal and retrospective manner to alter the terms of the council which was elected in 2019 under and by virtue of the law that existed at the material time.”

The lawsuit alleged the action of the minister and Cabinet “has given rise to the understandable perception that the Government is abusing its power to avoid and/or delay the local government elections in light of its poor ratings.”

Balgobin-Maharaj is also represented by Anand Ramlogan, SC, Renuka Rambhajan, Robert Abdool-Mitchell, Natasha Bisram and Vishaal Siewsaran.