Snatching of Speaker’s Mace: Judge denies request for suspended APNU/AFC MPs to attend Parliament

A request made by lawyer Selwyn Pieters, for eight APNU/AFC Members of Parliament (MPs) to attend sittings of the National Assembly despite their being suspended by the Parliamentary Committee of Privileges for unacceptable behaviour, has been denied by High Court Judge Damone Younge.

High Court Judge Damone Younge

Opposition Chief Whip Christopher Jones, Ganesh Mahipaul, Sherod Duncan, Natasha Singh-Lewis, Annette Ferguson, Vinceroy Jordan, Tabitha Sarabo-Halley and Maureen Philadelphia were officially suspended last month for participating in the infamous grabbing of the Speaker’s Mace and disrupting the sitting of the National Assembly on December 29, 2021.
The next sitting of the National Assembly is on Monday, August 8.
Following investigations, the Parliamentary Committee of Privileges delivered its report in mid-July, recommending the suspension of eight Opposition MPs for violating Standing Orders and established customs and practices regarding acceptable behaviour of Parliamentarians.

Attorney General Anil Nandlall, SC

The suspended MPs are, however, challenging their suspension in the High Court.
Against Attorney General Anil Nandlall, SC; House Speaker Manzoor Nadir; and Clerk of the National Assembly, Sherlock Isaacs, they are seeking, among other things, a declaration that the report of the Parliamentary Committee of Privileges is unconstitutional, null, void, and of no legal effect; and that their suspension is a breach of the principles of natural justice because their rights, as guaranteed under Article 144 (8) of the Constitution, have been infringed.
Further, they are seeking an order suspending any decision, resolution, or other determination made by the National Assembly to suspend them; and a further order that they be allowed to perform their duties until they have been afforded the right to be heard before the Parliamentary Sessional Select Committee of Privileges, pending the hearing and determination of their case.
During a hearing of their Fixed Date Application (FDA) on Thursday, Justice Damone Younge said that while she has heard submissions from the respective parties, at this stage of the proceedings, she is not minded to grant any interim order without having considered Nandlall’s Notice of Application (NoA). In that application, the Attorney General is seeking an order granting an extension of time to file and serve an Application in Defence to the MPs’ amended FDA filed on July 28.
The Opposition MPs have been granted until August 8 to file an Affidavit in Answer to the AG’s NoA. Arguments on the application for an extension of time will be heard on August 10.

According to the Committee’s report, its recommendations were based on video recordings, statements by staff of the Parliament Office and the Arthur Chung Conference Centre (ACCC), eyewitness accounts by other Members of the House, media reporters, and the public, both locally and internationally.
Additionally, each Opposition Member had been written to and asked to “show cause” why sanctions should not be meted out to them. Their responses were received and considered by the Committee. With these on hand, the Committee “found that the named MPs were in violation of the Standing Orders and established Customs and Practices regarding acceptable behaviour of Members in the Assembly.” It therefore determined that the appropriate sanction available for the National Assembly to impose is suspension from service in the House.

Notwithstanding, the APNU-AFC Parliamentarians, in legal documents seen by this publication, contend that they are “unaware of any act of ours on the day in question falling in the category of gross disorderly conduct, contempt, and breaches of privileges, and that to the best of our recollection, on the day in question, our posture was no different from all other Members of Parliament who were present…”

Members of the A Partnership for National Unity-Alliance For Change removed the Speaker’s Mace at a sitting of the National Assembly on December 29, 2021, during the debate on the Local Content Bill

According to them, they had specifically requested that the Committee of Privileges identify to them the Standing Orders or privileges they supposedly violated, as this was essential if they were to effectively exercise the opportunity to show cause.
They complained that at no time were they invited to appear before the Committee of Privileges to be allowed a hearing, nor were they told what action of theirs had violated established customs and practices regarding acceptable behaviour of MPs.
The parliamentarians have argued that the report of the Committee of Privileges would be a published record that would forever inevitably affect their character and reputation. They argued that any suspension would further hinder them from representing the people who elected them to sit in the National Assembly, and would also prevent Mahipaul from functioning as a member of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
They contend, inter alia, that “any suspension will deprive (them) of their full salaries and of the opportunity to be representatives of the National Assembly and people of Guyana at national, regional, and international forums.”
Further, they submitted that their likely suspension is part and parcel of an unconstitutional scheme and/or device by the Government to utilise its majority in the National Assembly to silence and to reduce the numbers of sitting Parliamentary Opposition Members of Parliament.
The Clerk of the National Assembly has since written the Members of Parliament, informing them that during the period of their suspension, they would not be paid salaries and allowances, and would not be entitled to some of the other benefits enjoyed by other Members of the House.
Besides Pieters, the suspended MPs are being represented by Senior Counsel Roysdale Forde and Attorney Khemraj Ramjattan, who are both Opposition MPs.

Privilege Motion
The Committee of Privileges was tasked with considering a Privilege Motion which stated that the eight Opposition Members, in attempting to prevent the second and third readings of the Natural Resource Fund (NRF) Bill, No 20 of 2021, conducted themselves in a gross, disorderly, contumacious and disrespectful manner, and repeatedly ignored the authority of the National Assembly and that of the Speaker, thereby committing contempt and breaches of privileges.

After seeking an extension to its one-month timeline to consider the violations committed by the members, the Committee finally completed the report, and submitted it to be laid in the National Assembly for debate.

The Privileges Committee recommended that Jones, Mahipaul, Duncan and Singh-Lewis be each suspended for four consecutive sittings for attempting to prevent the second and third readings of the NRF Bill, and for conducting themselves in a gross, disorderly, contumacious and disrespectful manner, and repeatedly ignoring the authority of the Assembly and that of the Speaker, thereby committing contempt and breaches of privileges.
A recommendation was also been made for MPs Ferguson and Jordan to each be suspended for six consecutive sittings for a similar offence. However, their suspension was higher, since the Committee concurred that they had committed “serious violations which were severe and egregious by unauthorizedly removing the Parliamentary Mace from its rightful position in a disorderly fashion, causing damage to the Mace, injuring and assaulting a staff of the Parliament Office while attempting to remove the Mace from the Chamber”.
Meanwhile, a similar recommendation of suspension for six consecutive sittings has been made against Sarabo-Halley, whose violations were found to be “severe and egregious with regard to unauthorisedly entering the communication control room of the ACCC and destroying several pieces of audio-visual equipment, being public property”.
MP Philadelphia is also facing a suspension recommendation of six consecutive sittings over her severe and egregious violations, whereby she “verbally assaulted a staff of the Parliament Office within the precincts of the National Assembly”.
The Privileges Committee is chaired by the House Speaker, and its members comprise both Government and Opposition MPs. Representing Government are: Prime Minister Brigadier (ret’d) Mark Phillips; Attorney General Anil Nandlall, SC; Parliamentary Affairs and Governance Minister Gail Teixeira; Culture, Youth and Sport Minister Charles Ramson; and Attorney-at-Law Sanjeev Datadin.
On the side of the APNU/AFC Opposition are: Khemraj Ramjattan; Roysdale Forde, SC; Geeta Chandan-Edmond, and David A Patterson.
It is understood that the Opposition Members did not participate in the last three of five Committee meetings. Hence, the other members, including the Chairman, went ahead and concluded the report with the recommendations for the suspension of the eight Opposition MPs. (G2)