Senator: Control cost of commissions of enquiry

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Independent Senator
Deoroop Teemal.

SAYING attorneys often joke that commissions of enquiry (CoE) were viewed as financial windfalls, Independent Senator Deoroop Teemal on Tuesday urged that the cost of COEs to the public purse be restricted.

He spoke in the Senate in support of a private motion by Independent Senator Anthony Vieira, SC, who urged a review of the public enquiry process and the Commission of Enquiry Act.

Teemal said the last four CoEs had cost $600 million, exclusive of the $15 million inquiry into the Paria diving tragedy.

“It is exceedingly expensive,” Teemal remarked. “Is it worth it? The answer is, what are the benefits?”

Teemal welcomed a proposal made earlier by Attorney General Reginald Armour, SC, to set up a mechanism to rein in these costs.

He expressed concern over whether COEs would be viewed as being independent if they were appointed by the President whom he said was equated with the Cabinet, even as he noted scepticism by some on the independence of independent senators who are hand-picked by the President.

Teemal said the cost of a CoE can escalate in light of salaries, staff and expert witnesses that all must be catered for.

He said it was challenging to pin down a specific budget under such circumstances. Teemal reckoned citizens would be okay with the costs if recommendations arising from CoEs were actually followed, including taking action against individuals found to be culpable. He asked whether as the legal system develops, would there be “a price to truth and justice”?

Teemal said the Uff CoE into Udecott and the construction sector had 65 recommendations. “How much of these were actually entered into policy by governments,” he asked. “And how much is having an effect?” He said CoEs must be tasked with making workable recommendations. “Things that are meaningful and implementable.” Recommendations should be enforceable, he urged.

Alternately, Teemal said any reform must consider the impact that CoEs may have on individuals.

“Individuals may suffer reputational damage, even if not found guilty of any wrongdoing.” The mere fact of being summoned to testify at a COE could damage someone’s reputation, he warned.

Teemal wondered if the Paria CoE was establishing criminal guilt or civil responsibilities, or just finding out the facts. He wondered if the Paria CoE’s recommendations were rooted in reality and asked if there should be guidelines for making such recommendations applicable.

Teemal called for a mechanism to help CoEs become more time-efficient, as he lamented that each commission faces a process of setting up an entire administrative arm of a physical venue and staffing, which he said was a timely and costly process. He said the AG’s proposal for a secretariat to be established to be used by all commissions of enquiry was worthy of consideration.