Challenge to NRF Act continues in High Court before Justice Singh

Norris Witter, Christopher Jones take stand

The trial in the challenge to the Natural Resource Fund Act 2021 (NRF) continued today before Justice Navindra Singh, at the High Court, Georgetown.

On 13 September 2022, when the trial commenced, Mr. Khemraj Ramjattan, Member of Parliament and Leader of the Alliance for Change, testified for the Claimants, Christopher Jones, Chief Whip and Member of Parliament for APNU, and Norris Witter, a Trade Unionist.

The Claimant filed the legal proceedings challenging the lawful passage of the Natural Resource Fund Act, which was passed on 29 December 2021, on several grounds, including that the government did not adequately consult on the Bill, that the Opposition were not permitted to speak on the Bill, and that the Bill was passed without the proper mace being in place.

The Attorney General Mohabir Anil Nandlall, SC, MP, the Speaker, the Clerk and the Minister of Finance, Dr Ashni Singh, are named as the Respondents. In a defence filed by the AG, he contends that the Bill received widespread consultation from 2015 to 2020; that the elements of the Bill were set out in the PPP Manifesto on which it campaigned and held public meetings and rallies across the country; that on the night that the Bill was debated, instead of speaking on the Bill, the Opposition Members of the House disobeyed the orders of the Speaker, descended into the rotunda of the National Assembly and behaved in the most disorderly, contemptuous and raucous manner.

In the process, the Opposition members attempted to intimidate Finance Minister, Dr Ashni Singh, who spoke on the Bill and attempted to prevent him from speaking. They then attempted to steal the mace, broke it in the process, assaulted the staff of the Parliament and destroyed the loud-speaking equipment of the National Assembly.

Further, the AG contended that the presence or absence of the mace does not affect the power of Parliament in its legislative capacity and therefore did not affect the passage of the Natural Resource Fund Bill, 2021.

The Claimants are represented by Roysdale Forde SC and Selwyn Pieters. Mohabir Anil Nandlall SC MP appeared in person with Nigel Hawke, Deborah Kumar, Shoshanna V Lall and Chevy Devonish for the Attorney General and the Minister of Finance, and the Speaker and Clerk of the National Assembly are represented by Sase Gunraj and Kamal Ramkerran.

The two remaining witnesses for the Claimants, Norris Witter and Christopher Jones, were scheduled to testify today. However, most of the three-hour hearing today was taken up by objections raised by the Attorney General, to the witness statements of Witter and Jones, on several legal grounds, including, that they contained inadmissible hearsay evidence, that they were irrelevant or constitute expert opinion evidence.

Norris Witter:

▪ In relation to Norris Witter’s witness statement, after hearing arguments from both sides, the trial judge struck out 9 of Witter’s 31 paragraphs in his witness statement, on grounds of irrelevance or that they contained inadmissible hearsay.

▪ Witter, under cross-examination by the AG, admitted that he was not present on the day or night when the NRF Bill 2021 was debated and passed in the National Assembly and that he had no personal knowledge in relation to the matters connected to the Bill’s passage in the Assembly, and therefore cannot speak to those matters.

▪ Witter also admitted that he was aware of a previous NRF Bill 2019, passed by the APNU/AFC government, after the passage of the no-confidence motion in 2018 against that government. He further admitted that the 2019 Bill was debated and passed by that government, sitting alone in the National Assembly without an Opposition, after it was defeated by the no-confidence motion; but that he never filed any petition against the passage of the Bill. Further, although the then government did not consult with Witter on the 2019 Bill, he did not feel that his fundamental rights under Articles 13 and 154 of the Constitution and Article 25 of the Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, were violated. These are the very rights he claims were violated when the 2021 NRF Bill was debated and passed.

▪ When further questioned by the AG, Witter admitted that apart from his grievance that he was not consulted on the 2021 Bill and that the Bill was not sent to a Select Committee, he has no other complaint in relation to how the Bill was passed by this Government (sitting in a fully constituted Assembly).

▪ Under further cross-examination by Mr. Kamal Ramkarran, acting on behalf of the Speaker and Clerk of the National Assembly, Mr. Witter admitted that the issues contained in the Petition, which the Opposition Members signed in relation to the 2021 NRF Bill, were all issues that could have been raised and debated in the National Assembly by the elected representatives.

Christopher Jones:

▪ A long line of objections was taken by the AG in respect of Christopher Jones’ witness statement on similar, and additional grounds, that is, inadmissible hearsay, relevance, expert opinion evidence, conclusive evidence and matters of law to be determined by the court.

▪ Again, the Court heard legal submissions from the AG and Mr. Forde and in the end, struck out 35 of the 96 paragraphs of Jones’ affidavit.

The trial continues tomorrow where Jones’ evidence will be heard on the remaining paragraphs.