IN THE IMPERIAL-ERA splendour of Middlesex Guildhall, near Britain’s Parliament, five judges sitting as the judicial committee of Her Majesty’s Privy Council will hear a case this month involving a traffic accident in Antigua in 2011. Antigua & Barbuda is one of eight Caribbean countries that still use the Privy Council as their highest court of appeal, as do overseas territories like the Cayman Islands, crown dependencies such as Jersey and the ecclesiastical Arches Court of Canterbury.
The traffic case, Meyer v Baynes, may be one of the last from Antigua to be heard by the Privy Council. On November 6th voters in Antigua & Barbuda and in Grenada will decide whether to adopt as their supreme court the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), a 13-year-old tribunal housed in a glass edifice in Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad & Tobago. In both votes, a two-thirds majority is needed to make the switch.
Advocates of the change say it will cast off a remnant of colonial rule. Adrian Saunders, the CCJ’s president, says it is an “embarrassment” that eight Caribbean countries, including Trinidad itself and his native St Vincent, still use the Privy Council. But anti-colonialism may not be the only motive for dumping the British court, which often overrules regional tribunals.
Antigua’s prime minister, Gaston Browne, has reason to resent it. In 1996 a government in which he served as minister of planning and industry tried to block the Daily Observer, a newspaper, from setting up an independent radio station. Regional courts backed the government but the Privy Council overruled them in 2000. With Observer Radio broadcasting critically, Mr Browne’s Labour Party lost the parliamentary election three years later.
Caribbean politicians may hope that the CCJ will be easier to influence. The region’s close-knit elites populate governments and the court. One judge, Denys Barrow, is the brother of Belize’s prime minister, Dean Barrow. “They all went to the University of the West Indies together,” says an Antiguan who is pondering his vote.
Some believe that the distant Privy Council acts as a more effective check on two powerful prime ministers than would the Caribbean tribunal. The Labour Party has 15 of 17 seats in the lower house of Antigua’s parliament. Grenada’s prime minister, Keith Mitchell, tried but failed to throw off the authority of the Privy Council by holding a referendum two years ago. In an election in March his New National Party held on to all 15 lower-house seats, which may give the former cricketer confidence that he will succeed on his second attempt.
Fears that the CCJ would pander to politicians have so far not been borne out. Belize’s family tie to the court has not influenced it. The country has recently lost several cases. In one, involving a loan guarantee for construction of a private hospital, the court upheld an arbitration order that requires Belize’s government to pay $26m, nearly 5% of its revenue.
The court’s financial independence from governments, though, is in jeopardy. A trust fund to which they contributed $114m is supposed to provide income “in perpetuity”, but with uneven returns on investment its value has dropped to $88m. The CCJ may beg for more money from governments, which paid into the fund even if they did not use its services as an appeals court. Antigua and Grenada would bring extra work, but not more resources.