CLA News / Report on Commonwealth Secretariat Latimer House Principles Webinar
On Tuesday 27 July 2021, an important webinar took place. Organised jointly between the Commonwealth Secretariat Rule of Law division and the Latimer House Working Group, the webinar was entitled ‘How Can Latimer House Principles Support Recovery from the COVID-19 Pandemic?’
In organising this webinar, it was considered essential that representatives from the affiliate organisations which make up the Latimer House Working Group were all involved. I was pleased to moderate the discussion, thus ensuring representation for the CLA. Dr Karen Brewer, Secretary to the Latimer House Working Group and of course the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth Magistrates & Judges Association, agreed to provide a short presentation on the principles and their evolution. We also had a contributor from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association – namely the Honourable Alincia Williams-Grant, President of the Senate of Antigua and Barbuda, and we then had a representative from the Commonwealth Legal Education Association – Dr Roshan de Silva- Wijeyeratne. In addition, other panellists were Justice John Vertes of Western Canada and Dr Unity How,former Foreign Minister of Botswana.
The Secretary- General of the Commonwealth, Baroness Scotland agreed to bring some introductory words. I was pleased to be introduced by Marie-Pierre Olivier of the Rule of Law division in the Commonwealth Secretariat, and after a few words of introduction, I in turn introduced Baroness Scotland. She emphasised the importance of the Latimer House Principles and how in particular,r where many jurisdictions had invoked emergency powers to deal with the pandemic, it was vital to restore proper scrutiny of executive decision making and the respect for the separation of powers between the executive, parliament and the judiciary.
Following her words of greeting, which were warmly received, I then introduced Dr Brewer, who in an excellent and concise presentation, outlined some of the history of how the Latimer House Working Group came into being, how the Principles were finalised and adopted by Commonwealth jurisdictions in Abuja in 2003 and how the principles were supplemented by Guidelines, and more recently by a Toolkit. There was a very strong message that the affiliate organisations stood by ready and willing to assist the Commonwealth Secretariat in delivering training, using the Toolkit, which was an extensive and helpful document.
After some discussion with Dr Brewer, and mindful that Dr Roshan needed to exit quickly, I asked him for his views on how the principles might assist in the post COVID world, and he indicated that more awareness was required together training. He suggested that the Latimer House Principles had even assumed a greater importance and relevance, as countries could see the need for an independent judiciary to adjudicate on decisions that had been taken through the pandemic, and to ensure that there was both accountability and a return to detailed scrutiny of legislation proposed by parliaments.
The Honourable Senator Williams-Grant, in response to my query that it was perhaps ‘a bit rich’ to blame governments for acting swiftly and perhaps taking short cuts in the pandemic, emphasised that in her jurisdiction, there was a very significant respect for ensuring that decisions were taken in a meaningful, open and transparent way. She emphasised that it was only by being transparent and trustworthy that decision making in her jurisdiction could have been respected. She certainly was a champion of the Latimer House Principles and the important role that they played in simply underpinning decision making in her jurisdiction and further afield.
Judge John Vertes, a former Chief Justice of the north-western territories in Canada, contributed with great wisdom his reflections on the question of elections and openness of courts. He said that in many jurisdictions, business as usual was important. Holding elections, while challenging in a pandemic, was nonetheless an important feature of democracy and the courts had been called upon to adjudicate on lawfulness of decision making to hold elections and other important constitutional matters. When asked about the obligations within the Latimer House Principles to ensure that justice was delivered in an open court forum, he emphasised that in many courts in Canada, they had been able to remain open mostly with social distancing, they had provided public access through remote hearings where required, but he accepted that of course some adherence to open justice had been compromised simply by virtue of the exigencies of the pandemic.
Dr Unity Dow, lawyer, former judge of the High Court in Botswana and then a longstanding member of the Cabinet of the Botswanan government, including a period as Minister for Infrastructure, and more recently as Foreign Minister, provided a most reassuring insight into respect for the parliamentary process, the importance of holding the executive to account and the critical importance of an independently recruited, appointed and sustained judiciary.
In considering whether more could be done to promote the pandemic, all the panellists were unanimous that these were important Principles. They recognised that each generation of parliamentarians needed to be made aware of the Principles, and the civil servants and clerks to the courts and to the Parliament would benefit from refresher training. All emphasised that they and the organisations that they represented being the CMJA, the CLEA, and the CPA, all stood by ready to assist. I was able to confirm that support would be available from the CLA.
I found the format for this webinar to be refreshing with words of introduction, a short presentation which set the scene, and then short answers from contributors, enabling all to speak at frequent intervals to questions which had been identified as relevant in advance.
It was extremely gratifying to the CLA to have been involved in the role of Moderator, and it was also gratifying that such importance had been placed on showcasing the Latimer House Principles with a commitment to do more. All the members of the Latimer House Working Group will, I am sure, be in contact with the Secretariat to follow up on the commitments made to deliver greater awareness and to make use of the Latimer House Toolkit.
Brian H Speers