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Living Law: Do you really know what your rights are? The link between the law and what we say and do

What is a right?

Rights are such a fundamental thing; everybody has them and governments and courts and other powers-that-be are constrained to respect them. It certainly is not unusual to hear people declare vehemently, “That is my right!” Also commonplace is “I have the right to [insert comment of choice here, such as ‘free speech’]” and “I have the right to privacy.”

Photo: A fiery protest at Beetham Gardens in 2012.
(Courtesy Anonymous Motorist)

But where do rights come from? How many readers would, if challenged, be able to answer the question, “What is a right?” How many will have to turn to Google or perhaps a legal dictionary? I have no empirical evidence but my gut tells me that the percentage of people who can answer that question is very small. None whom I have personally asked has been able to articulate an answer.

I admit that I find law to be a fascinating subject, which is why I am currently pursuing a degree in law. I am also well aware that not everyone will share my passion for the subject. My purpose for writing this column, however, is neither to “teach” law to its readers nor to make them passionate about it. The column is intended to provide to the ordinary citizen—I almost said ‘lawless citizen’—some clear idea of how the law works, particularly as regards issues that we see in the news daily.

Far too often, the ordinary citizen has no grasp of the concepts and principles behind the law and so there is ill-founded public outrage when behaviour does not conform to what is perceived as being “fair.” Often, it’s the nonsensical, ill-informed opinions put out there that stoke anger, intolerance and racial hatred. We see it regularly, in the letters to the editors of newspapers as well as in the contributions on online forums.

Law evolves in small increments as society sees fit. It is essentially a means of achieving social control, clamping down on aberrant behaviour that might bring harm to others. It seeks to prevent harm being done to others but, where harm has occurred, it punishes the perpetrator and tries to compensate the victim adequately and fairly.

Photo: Idi Amin, President of Uganda from 1971 to 1979, woke up one morning and decided that Indians no longer had any rights in his country.

That is why at the heart of the law lie the principles of fairness, justice, equity and equality as well as principles of deterrence and punishment of wrongdoing.

When we study the different legal systems around the world, we see that law is based around the society and legal systems are influenced by culture and religion as well as political agendas.

When we understand how the law works, we can understand the reasoning behind court judgments and recognise the logic and legal principles judges use to arrive at their decisions. We can also understand matters of public policy, politics and arguments (not disputes/quarrels but rather units of critical thinking). We can understand the need for contracts and courts, we can understand what a crime is and why it is a crime. We can understand the need for laws and why we should obey the law as well as what penalties apply when we don’t. We even understand why the penalty is what it is and whether or not it is fair.

When we understand how the law works, we understand the “Pratt & Morgan” judgment, why the Government can’t “bring back” the death penalty simply because it hasn’t ‘gone’ anywhere, why the Anti-Gang Act will never work, why the police are a laughable lot, why the Integrity Commission is just another toothless watchdog, why Chief Justice Archie’s current position is untenable, and why political progress in Trinidad and Tobago is a virtual impossibility.

When we understand how the law works, we see that incorrect opinions are as plentiful as donkey grass and that critical thinking is foreign to the political elite, the portion of it, at any rate, that we see on parade in Parliament.

Photo: Minister of Finance Colm Imbert, who recently declared in Parliament that economists with political connections have no right to criticise the government.
(Courtesy Annalisa Caruth/Wired868)

Most of all, we will understand when and how we should insist on our right to express an opinion, which brings us back to where we began, with rights.

So let me ask a few questions about these “rights” that roll so easily off our tongue: By what yardstick do we measure ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’?

Is it right to bury persons up to the neck and throw stones at their head until they are dead? Is it right to throw a homosexual person off a 12-storey building? Is it right to hang a person if there is a possibility that (s)he is innocent? Is it right that the police can frame a person to satisfy crime statistics? Is it right for abortion to be illegal/legal? Is it right for the Catholic Church to ban condom use while tens of thousands of deaths might be prevented by using them? Is it right for a man to ‘marry’ and have sex with a 12-year-old girl?

To use another example, is it right for the authorities to insist that we drive at a certain speed? In the city of Birmingham where I live, which is nearly the size of Trinidad and Tobago, the speed limit is 20 mph. Practically everywhere! To get anywhere, one must leave early enough to cater for the speed limit and traffic! Why? The answer is simple: “Speed kills.” That is the reason provided for lowering the speed limit, a law passed without so much as a whimper of protest.

In Trinidad and Tobago, in contrast, when radar guns were being introduced, loud protests were raised—successfully!—to increase the speed limit, despite the country having a motor vehicle incident death rate more than 40 times that of the UK.

Photo: You may think you have rights but…

Go figure!

And by the way, remember that question, “What is a right?” I’ll just leave you to answer that, right?

About Mohan Ramcharan

Mohan Ramcharan is a law student and a student of human nature and culture, who prefers cool logic to emotional ranting. A Trinidadian living in England, he observes the world through two lenses—and strives to share both views in his writing.

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4 comments

  1. Thanks to the writer for posting the article. I don’t think that this was the first article he has done in this forum. He exhibits his skills quite nicely by starting with rights then asking questions about what is right? The Headline wasnt even on rights but on the law and ended with the speed limit and the message- speeding kills!

    The article was quite thought provoking and when applying the realities satirically (which alludes to some use of rhetoric) as if T&T was Birmingham and vice versa, one would literally end up down a road where it would take forever for someone in Mayaro/ Guaya to drive for 20mph (in the article) to get to POS to do business and get back home!

    One may meet several roadblocks on any given day and issued several tickets. The Minister said that if you go over by 1kmh you would would be fined! Most cars still have analog speedometers. You can hit a pothole and have your tires stripped driving inside 5km and can get ticketed for that.

    I say thanks to the writers who challenged the view. I appreciate the new information about the fine for 86,000 pounds. It would mean therefore that an equivalent trini fine would be $860,000 and a charged policeman’s salary would have to be increased to approx $308k per year from prob $120k to be on par.

    Keep up the great work.

  2. Provocative article. How many outreach programs are the Law Association of Trinidad and Tobago currently engaged in to inform citizens and more so school children about their rights?

    Is it right for one to suggest that Birmingham has the same resources and layout of Trinidad and Tobago? Is it also right to think that there is a complex maxi taxi, PTSC, PH and seven seater taxi system moving the population just as there is in Birmingham?

    Is it right for Birmingham to even have more roadblocks, potholes road paving works than Trinidad and Tobago?

    Is it right for a citizen who works for $3- 4000 TT per month liable to be charged $1000 TT for going 32 in a 30km zone or 52 in a 50km zone?

    Is it right to be given a ticket for more than the value the insurance company underwrites your vehicle for?

    Is it right for wrecking to take place in the city of Birmingham where signs are not visible and the Police say it is not their problem but the Corporation’s problem to fix the signs?

    Then guess what? One is issued a $500 TT ticket by the said Police on behalf of the said corporation for a No Parking infraction!

    You are unavoidably right “When we understand how the law works, we see that incorrect opinions are as plentiful as donkey grass”!!

    • “Is it right for one to suggest that Birmingham has the same resources and layout of Trinidad and Tobago? ”

      Um, I didn’t see the writer say or even suggest that.

      ” Is it also right to think that there is a complex maxi taxi, PTSC, PH and seven seater taxi system moving the population just as there is in Birmingham?”

      Is there a significance in this question to speed? The writer clearly made a comparison of speed as a killer, in two places of comparative size but different speed limits.

      “Is it right for Birmingham to even have more roadblocks, potholes road paving works than Trinidad and Tobago?”

      Does Birmingham have more? What is the significance?

      “Is it right for a citizen who works for $3- 4000 TT per month liable to be charged $1000 TT for going 32 in a 30km zone or 52 in a 50km zone?”

      Yes. In fact, I think that fine is not high enough. Breach of the law is a breach of the law. Enforce it.

      “Is it right to be given a ticket for more than the value the insurance company underwrites your vehicle for? ”

      Of course. No question about it. In fact, double it.

      “Is it right for wrecking to take place in the city of Birmingham where signs are not visible and the Police say it is not their problem but the Corporation’s problem to fix the signs? ”

      Of course. Ignorance of the law is no excuse. No wrecking here, but one chappie got a fine for £86,000 (86 thousand pounds) for drunk driving. Same should be done in Trinidad.

      “Then guess what? One is issued a $500 TT ticket by the said Police on behalf of the said corporation for a No Parking infraction!”

      Double it!! Quadruple it, even.

      I have no sympathy. If you want to drive, own a car, then obey the law. Make it so hard that people are forced to pay attention.

    • @Public Enemy#1

      I think that Mr Ramcharan’s article lost its way in confusing Rights with what is right. A Right in law confers a legally protected position to do something, especially if it is not prohibited. While one has a Right of Freedom of Expression (for example), it does not mean that one is right to go rong dee place cussing up anybody as one feels. This is the difference between what is a Right and what is right (or wrong).

      The only issue relevant to Rights is in your question, “How many outreach programs are the Law Association of Trinidad and Tobago currently engaged in to inform citizens and more so school children about their rights?”

      I wouldn’t know the answer. Is the Law Association obliged to set up outreach programmes to educate citizens about their rights? I do not know – and I doubt it’s their job. Whether it should be their job, is not a matter I would preoccupy myself with.

      I could equally ask silly questions like, ‘Is it right for American school children to be gunned down in classrooms?'[Den somebody go go, “Whuh ‘rong wid you boy?”] Why is that a silly question? Because it is a separate and very different matter from the context of what Mr Ramcharan was referring to near the beginning of the article. So a contextually correct question would have been, “Is it a Right for Americans to bear arms on American soil?” The answer to that relevant to the legal position, is that it is a Right under their Second Amendment – whether or not it is right or wrong for American children are gunned down in classrooms.

      How? Go stody dee law lil bit nuh, which is what Mr Ramcharan was alluding to. Hol’ on breds – yuh doh have to be a law stewdent or a lawyer to stody law, eh.