Thomas Roe KC, Instructed by Charles Russell Speechlys LLP (London) for the Respondents
Adam Riley, Instructed by Vishaal Siewsaran of Freedom Law Chambers (San Fernando, Trinidad and Tobago) for the Appellant
Lord Richards (with whom Lord Reed and Lord Hodge agree):
On 2 December 2019, local government elections were held in Trinidad and Tobago. In accordance with the Municipal Corporations Act 1990 (“the MCA”), Councillors were directly elected by popular vote for a period of three years. Aldermen were also elected for a period of three years, using a party list system under which Aldermen were elected according to the number of votes cast for candidates of each party in the election for Councillors. The Councillors and Aldermen elected in December 2019 were due to lose office in December 2022 and further local elections were due to be held by March 2023.
The periods of office of Councillors and Aldermen were fixed by sections 11(4) and 12(5) respectively of the MCA. Significant changes to the internal structure of local government were made by the Miscellaneous Provisions (Local Government Reform) Act, 2022 (“the 2022 Act”), which received Assent on 1 July 2022. The position of Councillors and Aldermen within the structure of local government was left largely unchanged, save that they were to serve for periods of four years, instead of three years. The 2022 Act did not immediately come into effect, but by section 2 it was to come into operation on such date as fixed by the President by Proclamation. This power may be exercised as regards the whole Act or such provisions as may be specified: section 5(2) of the Statutes Act 1962. The President acts on the advice of the Government.
On 7 November 2022, a Proclamation was issued, bringing a small number of provisions of the 2022 Act into force with effect from 8 November 2022. The principal changes were to substitute four years for three years as the periods of office of Councillors and Aldermen.
On 3 November 2022, the Minister of Rural Development and Local Government had announced the Government’s intention to bring these provisions of the 2022 Act into force. He stated that the new four-year term would apply to the Councillors and Aldermen then in office (“incumbent Councillors” and “incumbent Aldermen”), who would therefore serve for an additional term of one year until December 2023, with elections postponed for one year.
The Government’s interpretation of the effect of the amendments on the terms of office of the incumbent Councillors and Aldermen was challenged by the appellant, Ravi Balgobin Maharaj. He filed applications for leave to apply for judicial review on 15 November 2022 and for interim relief on 21 November 2022. On 30 November 2022, Wilson J refused the application for interim relief. While she considered that there was a serious issue to be tried, she considered on discretionary grounds that interim relief should not be granted.
On appeal against the refusal of interim relief, the Court of Appeal agreed that, having regard to the importance of the case and the seriousness of the consequences, it would determine the “core issue” in the substantive claim, namely, whether sections 11 and 12 of the MCA, as amended by the 2022 Act, applied to the incumbent Councillors and Aldermen. In careful judgments given on 10 February 2023, the Court of Appeal (P Moosai, G Lucky and JC Aboud JJA) unanimously dismissed the appeal. The Court of Appeal granted permission to appeal to the Board.
Before the enactment of the MCA, local government was based largely on a system of elected county councils. The county councils were replaced under the terms of the MCA by newly constituted municipal corporations, with four existing municipal corporations continuing but subject to the provisions of the MCA. Section 8 provides that the Mayor, Aldermen, Councillors and electors of each Municipality shall be a body corporate. Section 10 provides that the powers of each municipal corporation shall be exercised by its Council, which shall consist of the Mayor, Aldermen and Councillors. The municipal corporations are tasked with a wide range of duties, many of which are essential to the proper functioning of their areas.
As with the county councils, the municipal corporations were established as democratically elected bodies. The Councillors are directly elected by popular vote of the registered electorate. This is provided by section 11 of the MCA which lies at the heart of this appeal.