19th May 2023 | News

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Maharaj v The Cabinet of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago [2023] UKPC 17, in which the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council gave judgment on 18 May 2023, concerned statutory construction and the principle of legality, and arose from controversial local government reforms.

On 2 December 2019, local government elections were held in Trinidad and Tobago. Under the Municipal Corporations Act 1990 (“the MCA”), Councillors were directly elected by popular vote for a period of three years. Aldermen were also elected indirectly for a period of three years. These office-holders were therefore due to leave office in December 2022 with further local elections 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, except that they were to serve for periods of four years, instead of three years.

The question in this appeal from the Court of Appeal of Trinidad and Tobago was whether the amendment changing the fixed term of office of Councillors and Aldermen in local government applied to incumbent office-holders as well as prospective office-holders. In other words, did it extend to four years the term of the Councillors and Aldermen who had originally been elected on the basis that they would be in office for only three years? The Government took the view that it did, and on that basis local government elections were postponed by a year.

Lord Richards (with whom Lords Reed and Hodge agreed) delivered the majority judgment.

The majority reasoned that the amending provisions more naturally read as applying only to Councillors and Aldermen elected after the amendments came into force, and that that conclusion was supported by the context and purpose for which the amendments were enacted. In particular, if the amendments were construed as applicable to incumbent office-holders, the effect would be that they were chosen as representatives for an additional year, not by the electorate but by the Government. Notably, the majority appears to have held that the principle of legality—by which statutes are to be construed if possible so as not to interfere with fundamental rights—applies to statutory rights as well as to common law rights. 

The minority judgment delivered by Lord Briggs (with whom Lord Kitchin agreed) by contrast argued, inter alia, that the purpose of the amendments and their plain wording, which was sufficiently clear and express, meant they applied to incumbents. And, further, that the majority’s interpretation would result in the terms of incumbents being defined by legislation repealed by operation of the amendments.

Thomas Roe KC, leading Rishi Dass SC and Leah Abdulah, appeared on behalf of the Cabinet of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago and the Minister of Rural Development and Local Government

Adam Riley, led by Anand Ramlogan SC, Peter Carter KC and Mohammud Jaamae Hafeez-Baig, represented the Appellant.


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