In 1998, a panel of Law Lords took the unprecedented decision to set aside a ruling of a differently constituted panel of judges of the House of Lords because of the appearance of bias, in an appeal brought by Senator Pinochet, former president of Chile.
The Government of Spain was seeking Pinochet’s extradition from the United Kingdom to face trial for acts that he was alleged to have committed when he was head of state of Chile. He pleaded that he had immunity from prosecution because of his status of head of state when the acts were alleged to have taken place, and that was upheld by the lower courts. To make a long story short, the lower courts’ decision was overturned paving the way for the continuation of extradition proceedings.
Subsequent to the first appeal it was discovered that the wife of one of the panel of Law Lords, Lord Hoffman, was employed by Amnesty International who sought and was granted permission to be an intervener in the Appeal. Lord Hoffman was not a member of Amnesty International, but he had raised funds to assist them to acquire a building.
The second panel accepted that there was a real danger or reasonable apprehension of suspicion that Lord Hoffmann might have been biased. There was no allegation of actual bias, but the panel ruled that the appearance of bias was enough to cause them to set aside the ruling in the first hearing before the Lords.
Just recently, in Trinidad, that country’s Chief Justice was embarrassed into returning the instrument constituting him a senior counsel, what we call queen’s counsel in Barbados, because it was bestowed by the Government. It was submitted that such acceptance would conflict with the doctrine of the separation of powers, and also there would be some appearance of bias if the Chief Justice were to adjudicate a case involving the Government.
Based on the two examples that I cited above, imagine my surprise when the Chief Justice of Barbados could be seen on the front page of a newspaper receiving honorary membership of the Rotary Club. My head immediately started to work overtime: should I join Rotary in case I am ever at the receiving end of a law suit; or what would happen if I had to go up against one of his Rotarian brothers in court.
Ever so often, we hear unfounded allegations that some of our judicial officers being lodge members cited as the reason why certain cases are decided in a particular way. It does not matter how unfounded these claims happen to be: they would tend to reduce confidence that the populace should repose in the judiciary. I am not saying that the Chief Justice would be biased but I would sleep a whole lot better if he had declined the invitation.
I do not know if it only me clutching at straws or is it that the Chief Justice has exercised extremely poor judgement in accepting honorary membership of Rotary. In my opinion, he should be required to return one of his instruments of appointment: it should either be Rotary or Chief Justice, not both.