Chairman Wants: Legal Aid for Equal Opportunity Tribunal

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By Sue-Ann Wayow

EVERY person, regardless of their financial means, should be able to obtain competent legal advice and guidance.

The 2023/2024 law term opened on Monday for the Equal Opportunity Tribunal. Chairman of the Tribunal Donna Prowell-Raphael urged that amendments be made to facilitate persons of lesser income values.

This year’s theme is Advancing Equality – one Complaint at a time.

In her statement, Prowell-Raphael said, “It is crucial that individuals from all walks of life have easy access to the Tribunal, regardless of their socio-economic status.”

Currently, litigants before the Tribunal do not have the option of accessing Legal Aid. Hence, I firmly support an amendment to the Legal Aid and Advice Aid to include proceedings before the Tribunal, to permit the availability of Legal Aid to these litigants.

The chairman said, “This step is necessary for maintaining a fair and equitable justice system, where every person, regardless of their financial means, can obtain competent legal advice and guidance.”

She also suggested that amendments be made to the Equal Opportunity Act to encompass and enhance protection for the members of the LBGTQ group with attention being placed on the definition of ‘sex’ within Section 3 of the Act.

“Such an amendment not only acknowledges the complexities of personal identity in contemporary society but also reiterates commitment to inclusivity, diversity and the elimination of all forms of discrimination,” Prowell-Raphael said.

She spoke about the Tribunal’s progress, challenges and prospects since its inception  just over 12 years ago.

The Tribunal, an arm of the Judiciary is the only anti-discrimination court in the English-speaking Caribbean functioning as a specialised court of law, possessing similar powers and authority to the High Court in its determination of complaints related to discrimination, victimisation and offensive behaviour.

All the decisions of the Tribunal are made by the Chairman who holds a status equivalent to that of a High Court judge.

From employment to education, housing to goods and services, the Tribunal adjudicates complaints of discrimination on grounds of race, ethnicity, sex, marital status, origin, disability or religion.

The Tribunal’s authority also encompasses the examination of victimisation and offensive behaviour, including acts intended to foment gender, racial or religious hatred whether publicly or communicated electronically.

Last year, for the first time, it received its own allocation from the National Budget  for development expenditure.

In 2013/2014, it received its fiscal independence apart from the Ministry of Legal Affairs budgetary allocation.

“Since then, the Tribunal’s annual allocation for recurrent expenditure has been among the smallest in any State entity,” Prowell-Raphael said and while recent financial allocations have been encouraging, the Tribunal must persist in its efforts to secure adequate funding for the continued realisation of its objectives.

One of the pressing issues is finding a new home.

The Tribunal’s Chairman said, “The search for a conducive, well-equipped environment for the home of the Tribunal is ongoing. We have been cohabiting with the Equal Opportunity Commission, a relationship dating back to 2012/2013. Its current premises are replete with health and safety concerns, rendering relocation imperative. While AGLA still covers its rent and utility bills, the Tribunal is actively seeking additional funding within its Head for Expenditure for the rental of suitable premises for the relocation process to advance.”

The Tribunal is based at Manic Street, Chaguanas.

The organisational framework allows for 40 staff members, but currently the staff complement was approximately at 50 per cent (approximately 22 individuals), including permanent and contract workers, she said.

Prowell-Raphael said, “The absence of a Registrar since 2019 has created challenges, causing senior members of the team to take on additional responsibilities. Acting appointments have been made by senior management, but there are still several vacant positions that need to be filled. We are actively collaborating with the relevant State agencies to expedite the hiring process for these positions as soon as possible.”

In terms of progress, the Tribunal is moving towards digitisation with an improvised system of electronic filings and virtual hearings, a new website, expanded social media engagement and the transformation to an E-court.

Additionally, over the past five years, the volume of matters resolved by the Tribunal has doubled. 

“The Tribunal has dramatically reduced its backlog of cases and the duration of time taken to resolve matters has been considerably shortened.” Prowell-Raphael said.

She added there were currently 21 open matters before the Tribunal with four major judgments due to be completed within the next six months.


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