Local government elections

May 22nd, 2023 by James Goudie KC

The majority decision in MAHARAJ v CABINET OF REPUBLIC OF TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO (2023) UKPC 17 concerned substituting four years for three years as the periods of office of Councillors and Aldermen, including apparently in the case of incumbents.  If so, incumbents would serve for an additional year with elections postponed for one year.  A judicial review challenge was brought to such a change to the basis upon which the incumbents had been elected.  The Privy Council observe (para 31) that it is an “essential element” of any democratic form of government that the electorate choose their representatives for a “limited period”: “The right to vote out representatives is as important as the right to vote in representatives”.  At the end of the period for which they were elected, the electorate has the right to decide whether they wish the incumbent representatives to remain in office, assuming they stand for re-election.  The Privy Council add (para 34) that it is inimical to a representative democracy that the representatives are chosen by anyone other than the electorate.

The principle of legality applied (paras 38-43 inc).  That is a principle of statutory interpretation that, in the absence of clear words, legislation will not be construed as being contrary to fundamental common law rights.  Fundamental rights or the rule of law cannot be overridden by general or ambiguous words. The fact that the democratic process, and the voting rights of individuals in that process, are derived solely from statute, and are not a product of the common law, does not diminish their fundamental importance.  Ambiguities in legislation are resolved in favour of democratic rights: “…the central importance of the statutory regime for democratic government … requires the use of clear language.”  The change should be interpreted as not applying to incumbents, rule the 3-2 majority of the Privy Council.

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