Daly Bread: T&T’s problem with commissions of inquiry and the value of Dennis Morrison

Ghosts of commissions past have appeared in response to the Prime Minister’s decision to have a commission of inquiry into the deaths of four divers on 25 February, while they were working on one of the pipelines of Paria Fuel Trading Company (Paria).

It was a wise decision of the Prime Minister to opt for a three-person commission of inquiry and to scrap the previously announced Cabinet-appointed committee charged with investigating the circumstances of the incident that led to the divers’ deaths.  

Photo: Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley (right) and Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi have a word in Parliament on 21 October 2021.
(Copyright Office of the Parliament 2021)

This is probably our last chance to re-establish the usefulness of commissions of inquiry. In the past, such commissions have seemed to take an eternity and proceedings for the sanction of wrongdoers and recommendations for reform have rarely followed.

The ghosts of commissions past are crying out that the proposed commission announced by the Prime Minister not be ‘a shadow of things that have been’. The unsatisfactory history of these commissions is not new. In a column published 20 years ago, on 14 April 2002, I dubbed these commissions as ‘commissions of futility’, outlining what was even then ‘undoubtedly accumulated discontent with them’.

I explained that the so-called Salmon principles which codified the procedural safeguards for witnesses in a public inquiry—including the participation of lawyers representing the various persons and bodies coming under scrutiny—does slow down the proceedings.  

As indicated then, an inquisitorial commission will bounce its head against the procedural safeguards protecting persons from unfair incrimination. These are safeguards to which everyone is entitled as part of the adversarial system of justice which we practise, particularly where there are allegations of underlying criminal conduct.

Photo: Late public servant Gene Miles takes the stand in a 1967 commission of inquiry into the corrupt granting of gas station licenses.

These conditions do not mean that the proposed commission of inquiry into the diving disaster cannot be satisfactorily completed.

First, it is important to emphasise that we allow ourselves to be weighed down with legacies of past inaction and that is why the common cry is that ‘nothing will come of it’ when the public conscience is greatly disturbed by a disastrous event.

In 2002, I wrote that ‘for public satisfaction to be obtained when things go wrong, there is little substitute for sound, independent police work and vigorous prosecution at the direction of an equally independent director of public prosecutions (DPP). It is into the DPP’s department that taxpayers’ money, spent on commissions, should be put’.

How ironic that, 20 years later, we recently had the DPP pleading with the Court of Appeal to stay its decision on permitting bail applications from murder accused because his department is not equipped to handle 1,200 potential applications and that his department would be at a disadvantage.

Photo: Director of Public Prosecutions
Roger Gaspard SC has his hands full.
(Copyright Roger Jacob/ Trinidad Newsday)

So here we are in the same khaki pants proposing to have another commission of inquiry because we have no choice but to examine the events at Paria publicly by a commission empowered to summon witnesses—given the widespread anger and sadness, exacerbated by the lack of compassion of Paria officials in their initial treatment of the grieving families.  

The buck for that failure has not stopped anywhere.

It may not have been possible to find within Trinidad and Tobago a jurist to be chairman because of the interactions persons resident in our small nation have with each other and which lead to perceptions of bias.  

Thank goodness former president of the Court of Appeal of Jamaica, Dennis Morrison, has accepted the appointment. 

He will have an understanding of the legal and socio-economic culture. His proximity to his home base will also avoid long intermissions to facilitate necessary returns home while the commission is in progress.

Photo: Former president of the Court of Appeal of Jamaica, Dennis Morrison.
(via Eugene Dupch Law School)

The provision of adequate resources for the commission is essential. Sir Anthony Colman had referred with regret to ‘under resourcing’ of the commission of inquiry into the collapse of CL Financial. 

It is also essential to set a case management timetable at the outset of the proceedings, which the commission—and not the lawyers and the parties—controls.  The timetable should provide for day-to-day sittings with as few intermissions as possible.

We must slay the ghosts of commissions past. We can welcome Justice Morrison and the move away from the regressive practice of looking primarily to London for persons of stature.

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