‘Commissions of inquiry –– here to stay’
Sir Richard Cheltenham has bad news for Barbadians still dissatisfied with this nation’s last commission of inquiry. There are more of such public probes to come.
The veteran attorney-at-law stated that public commissions of inquiry would not only continue being a feature of governance in the Barbadian landscape, but were likely to increase in number because they were a means of putting to rest public complaints and suspicions concerning the management of Government and its agencies.
The jurist, who also served in the Barbados Parliament for 23 years and headed many commissions throughout the Caribbean, recently told a group of mostly attorneys as he presented the Tenth Annual Dr Lloyd Barnett Lecture: “I am afraid that the commission of inquiry as a policy fashioning instrument is here to stay. We will see them being established on an increasing basis and with the sole purpose of helping to create policy options across a wide area of social, political and economic activity.
“They are likely to remain a part of the fabric of modern Government, and for good reason.”
Barbados’ last inquiry was into the tumultuous situation at The Alexandra School in 2012, and it concluded leaving many Barbadians dissatisfied with the toothless nature of its recommendations. But that public probe, led by Justice Fredrick Waterman, was not empowered by law to dismiss, remove, retire or transfer anyone, though it did make such recommendations.
Considering the more than $1/2 million tab for the inquiry, Bajans might be justified in wishing it had more teeth, beyond recommendations; hence their wariness at the mention of commissions of inquiry.
Another probe that has become a sore point with Bajans is the Sir Anthony Coleman-led Commission of Inquiry into the CLICO fiasco in Trinidad. It has been going since 2010, and during question time, broadcaster David Ellis asked whether was a waste of money because of the time elapsed, with no apparent end in sight while Barbadians and others across
the Caribbean continued to agonize.
Sir Richard explained that Sir Anthony had found himself saddled with two big enquiries at one time.
“I chatted with him on a few occasions and I got the feeling that it was a lot to put in the lap of one man. The Hindu Credit Union Scandal [commission of inquiry] was a big issue, a lot of evidence, a lot of documents. And the CLICO
one was heavier still, and he was the chairman in relation to both on them.”
The Barbadian jurist noted that Sir Anthony had recently stated that he was not receiving the administrative support expected, and for this reason a conclusion on the Clico probe had not yet been reached.
“I think that is a case where one man was asked to bite off and digest too much.”
In his presentation, Sir Richard explained there were “three types of commissions, namely, investigatory, inquisitorial and advisory. However, they all share similar key elements; for example, fact-finding and recommending”.
The learned jurist said that commissions of inquiry served in a way that facilitated smooth running of government, while addressing the people’s need for at least an appearance of justice in given situations.
“It is accepted that commissions have become important instruments for both exercising public accountability . . . fostering public accountability and reform of public policy.”
He said that apart from the “publicness” of commissions, commissioners were usually not members of government, and when those factors were added to their clear terms of reference, they were perceived as independent and useful tools of government policy.
“They allow governments to claim there has been no whitewash and that their report was outside of the control
of government and independent in every respect.”
In the past 25 years, Sir Richard served various positions in inquiries, ranging from commission counsel, counsel for an interested party, sole commissioner, and among panels in commissions that included the probes into the Trinidad coup, and death of Guyana’s Dr Walter Rodney.
Sir Richard said that to retain that image of independence, there should be compulsory consultation between the Government and Leader of the Opposition with respect to the establishment of commissions and the appointment of commissioners.
“That is likely to avoid a commission being scuttled as a result of a change of Government.”
To ensure these instruments of Government policy that are here to stay and function effectively, Sir Richard warned against terms of reference being, so broadly drawn that the commission is forced into an extensive evidence gathering process which drags on for years.
“The . . . delay in such circumstances is tremendous and it tends to cause a loss of public confidence. On the other extreme, the terms may be so tightly drawn that only superficial inquiry is possible and what should be the real focus of the inquiry is overlooked or minimized.”
Sir Richard said that at the same time they should not be too limiting.