Judge refuses Basil Williams’s application to recuse self from libel suit
Finding no likelihood of bias in her presiding over a libel suit filed against former Attorney General Basil Williams, SC, by his successor Anil Nandlall, SC, Justice Priya Sewnarine-Beharry has denied an application by the former for her to recuse herself from hearing the matter.
Williams’s application has its origin in a libel suit filed against him on April 4, 2017 by Nandlall, who sought damages for slanderous statements he alleged Williams made about him at a press conference. Nandlall, in a Statement of Claim, complained that Williams said he would be charged criminally for missing law books unaccounted for during his previous tenure as Attorney General between 2011 and 2015. Nandlall was subsequently charged in 2017 with the offence of larceny by bailee.
The charge, which was withdrawn by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) in October 2020, had alleged that between May 18 and May 29, 2015, while being a bailee in his capacity as Attorney General, Nandlall fraudulently converted 14 Commonwealth Law Reports valued at $2.3M, property of the Ministry of Legal Affairs, to his own use and benefit. Nandlall had always denied the allegation, stating that the charge was politically motivated and as a result of him constantly criticising Williams’s performance as Attorney General.
Williams, on the other hand, had always denied the libel action, and in his defence, contended that at the time of the making of the statements, he was speaking in his capacity as Attorney General, the custodian of State assets, and had a duty to give transparent answers. He said that the filing of the charge against Nandlall establishes his defence of truth and fair comment on a matter of public interest.
He had complained of Justice Sewnarine-Beharry granting several adjournments when the libel suit came up for hearing, and that she halted the case on December 5, 2019, pending the determination of the criminal charge against Nandlall. Williams argued that the decision taken by the Judge to stay the hearing of the claim until the criminal charge against Nandlall concluded raises the likelihood of bias on the part of the Judge.
He also argued that it predetermines issues raised by him as the court attached greater importance to the outcome of the charge rather than the charge itself. He also contended that there is a great disparity in the award of costs by Justice Sewnarine-Beharry against him compared with awards against Nandlall, which raises the appearance of bias.
However, Justice Sewnarine-Beharry held that her decision to stay the proceedings was in furtherance of the overriding objective of the court to do justice to the parties. She said it was also in keeping with the court’s responsibility to actively manage cases in accordance with the Civil Procedure Rules of 2016.
“In this regard, Rule 25.02(1)(c)(iv) empowers the court in actively managing cases to stay the whole or part of any proceedings generally, or until a specified date or event. It is of particular importance that this decision of 5 December 2019 was not appealed,” the Judge noted in a ruling delivered on Monday.
Addressing the issue of disparity in the award of costs, Justice Sewnarine-Beharry found that Williams’s contention was unmeritorious, while noting that she had awarded more costs to him and not Nandlall. In concluding, the Judge said that an informed, fair-minded and reasonable observer would not, in all of the circumstances of this particular case, have formed an objective opinion that there was a real likelihood that she might not bring an impartial and unprejudiced mind to the resolution of the suit.
The Judge said that Williams’s “doubts and fears are not objectively justified to the requisite standard”. As such, she dismissed his application seeking her recusal from hearing the case. Williams was ordered to pay $150,000 in costs to the Attorney General on or before January 14, 2022.
According to the Judge, in determining the quantum of costs to be awarded, she considered that the applications filed by Williams appear to be attempts to stall and/or delay the hearing of the substantive claim, which is ripe for hearing, and ought not to be encouraged.