Ravi Balgobin Maharaj wants info on state legal fees

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Ravi Balgobin Maharaj –

SOCIAL and political activist Ravi Balgobin Maharaj wants to know which attorneys received legal briefs from the State from June 2021-June 2024.

He also wants the names of the law firms and the corresponding total amount of fees invoiced and/or paid to them for the same period.

He made these requests on June 14, in a pre-action protocol letter sent by attorney Vishaal Siewsaran of Freedom Law Chambers, led by former attorney general Anand Ramlogan, SC.

The letter said on June 7, Attorney General Reginald Armour, SC, named six attorneys and three law firms in Parliament, saying, “The fees paid to the attorneys who have consented to their names being published amount in the aggregate to the sum of $10,996,865.”

This was part of an extra allocation of $124 million to his ministry when the House of Representatives’s Standing Finance Committee (SFC) approved a $2.3 billion supplementary allocation to the 2024 national budget.

“The gross figure to be paid to the attorneys who did not consent to their names being published amounts to the sum of $51,032,394,” the AG said.

Armour said the gross figure to be paid to attorneys who did not respond was $8,799,462.

“As at June 6, the total amount of outstanding legal fees was $70,828,722,” he added.

He gave this information after the Opposition made repeated calls for it and Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar hinted at legal action should the Government refuse to disclose the names of all attorneys to receive legal fees from the supplementation of income to the Ministry of the Attorney General and Legal Affairs.

However, Siewsaran said, “The refusal to disclose the amount of legal fees paid to lawyers retained to advise and represent the state is unreasonable and unjustifiable.

“It reveals a disturbing lack of transparency and accountability to the public. It must be understood and remembered that these are public funds and you are accountable to the public.”

He also said National Security Minister Fitzgerald Hinds’s condemnation of Persad-Bissessar’s call had no merit.

“There is no breach of any right to privacy because no lawyer has the right to expect that the amount of monies paid to them by the government is private information that is not subject to disclosure.

“The idea that this could make them a target for criminals is also not a defence – if anything, it is an admission of failure by the government that it cannot control serious crime and that it has surrendered to the criminals.

“You should be more concerned about the poor because they have had to bear the oppressive weight of the escalation in home invasions, robberies, rapes and murders.

“Unlike millionaire lawyers, they do not live in gated communities and cannot afford to hire private security,” Siewsaran added.

He also said the AG’s plea that he was following precedent was “ridiculously wrong and patently false,” as the ministry has routinely disclosed legal fees paid to attorneys retained by the State in Parliament.

Siewsaran said the requested information was not exempt, but if it was, it would be disclosable under section 35 of the Freedom of Information Act in the public interest.

“If the attorneys’ fees are made public this will be in furtherance of the objectives of the openness, transparency and accountability in governance and in your office.

“The public stands to benefit from the requested disclosure of information as it will be assured that there is no corruption in the assignment of state briefs to external counsel and the invoicing and payment of attendant legal fees.”

The AG was given 30 days to respond.