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Trinidad and Tobago’s Court System

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By Ravi Nanga

IN the past we have looked at various topics where a person may wish to pursue a remedy.

This week we propose to look at the structure of the court system in this jurisdiction.

In the event a person suffers a loss or is the victim of a wrong doing, invariably it is necessary to protect his rights in a court of law.

Further, should a person run afoul of the law and is charged with a criminal offence, similarly, his matter will also be heard in a court of law. There are two main branches of courts in this jurisdiction – Civil Courts and Criminal Courts.

Civil Courts will hear and determine disputes as between private citizens and/or corporate entities or between private citizens and the State.

Criminal Courts will hear and determine criminal matters where the State decides to prosecute a person in respect of criminal conduct.

However, there are certain matters where a private person can apply to the Director of Public Prosecutions for permission to prosecute a criminal matter before the Criminal Courts.

In addition to these two main branches, there are a number of specialised courts and tribunals.

As we examined over the two past weeks, there is the Industrial Court that deals with labour matters. The Industrial Court also hears and determines matters under the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

There is the Tax Appeal Board, and as the name suggests, this tribunal deals with tax matters, where for example there is a dispute with the Board of Inland Revenue concerning the payment of taxes.

There is the Environmental Commission that deals with matters concerning the environment, and in particular, breaches of the Environmental Management Act.

There is the Equal Opportunity Tribunal that hears and determines matters concerning discrimination under the Equal Opportunity Act.

There is also the Caribbean Court of Justice. Although this court is not our final Court of Appeal, it enforces the Treaty of Chaguaramas which defines the relationship between members of CARICOM.

When this court is enforcing the Treaty it is sitting as a Court of Original Jurisdiction and hears and determines disputes between CARICOM members.

In addition to this Original Jurisdiction, the Caribbean Court of Justice also acts as a final Court of Appeal for certain jurisdictions, much like how the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council is our final Court of Appeal.

Getting back to the civil and criminal courts, there are basically four levels.

The first level is the Magistrates’ Court. The Magistrates’ Court has limited jurisdiction and hears certain types of criminal matters and civil matters, where the sum in dispute is $50,000 or less. In addition, the Magistrates’ Court hears and determines road traffic offences, certain types of family disputes, coroner hearings in order to determine the cause of unnatural deaths and the granting of various types of licenses, for example, grocers’ licenses, liquor licenses and restaurant licenses.

Further, in criminal matters that are to be heard in the High Court, the Magistrates’ Court hears the preliminary inquiry, in order to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to justify the matter being heard in the High Court. However, with respect to this last example, there is a move to abolish Preliminary Inquiries.

The second level is the High Court. The Criminal Court hears and determines the more serious criminal matters.

The Civil Court hears and determines all civil matters where the value of the claim exceeds $50,000. The Civil Court hears and determines a wide variety of matters such as Admiralty matters, which deals with claims arising out of ships, family matters, which deals with family disputes such as divorces, and Judicial Review, which is a supervisory role, where the High Court can review decisions made by public bodies, such as Government institutions.

The third level is the Court of Appeal. In the event a person is not satisfied with a decision made in the Magistrates’ Court or the High Court, they can appeal to the Court of Appeal. When an appeal is filed, the matter will be reviewed by either two or three Justices of Appeal, who will review the matter in the court below and determine whether that Court was correct or not.

In the Criminal jurisdiction, it can mean that the court below was wrong to convict or the punishment was too severe. In the civil jurisdiction it can mean that the court below came to the wrong decision.

The Court of Appeal can quash the decision of the court below all together, which can bring the matter to an end, or order that the matter be re-tried in the court below.

In the event a person appeals the severity of a criminal conviction, the Court of Appeal can reduce or quash the penalty, or at times, can even increase the penalty.

Normally three Justices of Appeal hears appeals, but in the event there is a matter of great importance, five or more Judges can sit to hear the appeal.

The fourth and highest level is the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. This is the final Court of Appeal and sits in London, England. In the past it was necessary to travel to London in order to attend this Court, however, today parties have the option of attending the Privy Council via a video link, where their lawyer can argue the matter from Trinidad. Further, it is now possible to view the hearing of appeals via the Privy Council’s website.

In the event there was an appeal to the Court of Appeal and a person remained dissatisfied with the ruling, they could appeal to the Privy Council. It is not every matter that can be appealed to the Privy Council and it is necessary to apply for permission to appeal to the Privy Council. In the first instance permission is sought before the Court of Appeal, and if the Court of Appeal refuses to grant permission, permission can then be sought from the Privy Council. Appeals to the Privy Council are normally heard by five Judges, however in the event there is a highly important matter, seven or more Judges can sit to hear the appeal.

Ravi Nanga is an attorney-at-law

 Other articles by Ravi Nanga:

A Trade Dispute at the Industrial Court



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