AG and Opposition leader Kamla Persad clashes over legal fees in Trinidad and Tobago

The first question was with respect to the attorney paid $790,000 in legal fees by the Industrial Court; and secondly, with respect to the owner of property rented at a cost of $759,195,000 by the Industrial Court.

AG and Opposition leader Kamla Persad clashes over legal fees in Trinidad and Tobago
AG and Opposition leader Kamla Persad clashes over legal fees in Trinidad and Tobago

Trinidad and Tobago: The question of legal fees yesterday led to Attorney General Reginald Armour clashing with Opposition members Saddam Hosein, Dinesh Rambally, Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar and Dr Roodal Moonilal when he appeared to be unwilling or unable to provide answers in Parliament.

The first question was with respect to the attorney paid $790,000 in legal fees by the Industrial Court; and secondly, with respect to the owner of property rented at a cost of $759,195,000 by the Industrial Court.

In explaining the need for an additional $7.9 million for the Industrial Court, the Attorney General was asked by Barataria/San Juan MP Saddam Hosein about the additional allocation of $790,000 for fees, and what this was for. Armour responded that the fees were for senior counsel retained by the Industrial Court in a matter which is currently engaging the High Court.

Hosein asked who the senior counsel was, and the AG said: ‘Well, it has been the practice of the Office of the Attorney General and Ministry of Legal Affairs to pay respect to the concept of fairness and if an attorney wishes to have his name disclosed, he would first be asked.’

He said he would ask of the attorney whether he consents, and the information will be laid in Parliament.

Hosein said Armour’s predecessor (Faris Al-Rawi) laid the information with respect to all of the attorneys paid for the various fiscal years, and the particular amounts.

He said he was very surprised to learn, through the new leadership, that the Opposition would not be able to know who was the senior counsel who would be paid $790,000 of taxpayers’ money. Armour said he did not say that he could not reveal the name nor that he was departing from the practice of the ministry.

He reiterated that he would first ask the attorney’s permission and in due course his ministry would lay all relevant information, including the names of attorneys paid fees by that ministry.

Hosein said the Standing Finance Committee was an exercise in determining how and where taxpayers’ money is spent. He asked further whether it was normal for the Industrial Court to retain senior counsel in ongoing matters. Armour said it was within the discretion of the President depending on the complexity of a matter on which the court’s jurisdiction is being challenged.

‘Abusing the meeting’

Chaguanas West MP Dinesh Rambally wanted to know the name of the matter, when it was commenced and its nature.

Armour responded: ‘I would be wary to reveal the names of matters without more. There are considerations that impact on matters before the court, and I would be very wary not to reveal the names of matters and the nature… because I would not wish to compromise anything that is before a judicial sitting.’

Rambally countered that matters engaging the High Court are public matters. Armour said it was a constitutional motion. Rambally pressed further, saying he could not understand why the committee could not be provided with the name.

Finance Minister Colm Imbert said according to the Standing Orders, if information was already in the public domain, a Member could not ask for it in Parliament and he called for a ruling from the chairman of the committee, House Speaker Bridgid Annisette- George, following which Couva South MP Rudy Indarsingh accused Imbert of ‘abusing the meeting’. This caused a ruckus, which forced Ann-isette George to intervene and say what she understood the AG to say was that this matter would be determined later.

Armour versus Persad-Bissessar

Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar asked about the increase in appropriation for the payment of rental, lease and office accommodation and storage with respect to the Industrial Court, and who was the owner of the property.

Armour said he did not have the information. Asked by Persad-Bissessar to provide an undertaking to do so later on before the debate on Monday, Armour said he did not want to give an undertaking that he could not keep, and ‘will make enquiries’.

‘What?’

Opposition Members chorused. Persad-Bissessar said she would then ask the assistance of the ‘long-standing and experienced’ Minister of Finance, but Imbert said he could not provide any more information. ‘I will talk to the Attorney General and see what information can be provided,’ Imbert said.

Persad-Bissessar said the practice has been that if a minister cannot give information at the point in time that the question is asked, he/she gives an undertaking to do so in time for the debate. Imbert said no such Standing Order exists.

But Annisette-George said while not codified in the Standing Orders, there was the practice (of giving such undertakings when the information is not readily and immediately available).

Oropouche East MP Roodal Moonilal asked whether the Attorney General was asking the committee to approve $759,195 for rental payments, but he did not know the location of the rental property, the owner and the terms and conditions for the rental which was already in process.

‘What I said is that I would make enquiries,’ Armour said. When Moonilal pressed further, Armour said, to desk-thumping support: ‘I don’t have the information to provide you with now, and I will make enquiries. I expect that by making enquiries of a responsible organisation. I will get the answers required.’

Later in the meeting, Persad-Bissessar expressed her appreciation for the fact that the Minister of Public Administration provided the name of the attorney-Russell Martineau- who was paid $955,000 in fees by the Police Service Commission.