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National Assembly likely to get legal department

The National Assembly seems poised to be fitted with its own legal department and legal counsel under the David Granger administration.

If this department is set up it will be a welcomed development for Clerk of the National Assembly, Sherlock Isaacs who, along with former Speaker, Raphael Trotman and the then opposition A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) and Alliance for Change (AFC), advocated for its establishment during the 10th Parliament.

Speaking to Demerara Waves Online News, Attorney General (AG) and Legal Affairs Minister Basil Williams acknowledged that the House needs expert parliamentary guidance and advice.”We need to have some assistance in the Parliament, a parliamentary counsel that will give advice to the Speaker and to the members…we had a problem of drafting and the former AG (Anil Nandlall) had said that we could not use the CPC (Chief Parliamentary Counsel).”

Attempts to set up this department during the 10th Parliament had been road-blocked by then Public Service Minister Jennifer Westford. Westford who was responsible for approving the establishment of the department and hiring of personnel to staff it. However, she had said that she would not have approved the setting up of the department as the work evisaged was being carried out by the CPC.

The parties had said that the lack of an in-house parliamentary counsel is, among other things, a handicap to opposition parties which have limited to no access to draftspersons, thus diminishing their ability to draft bills. Worthy to note is that the setting up of such a department will, at this point, mean more assistance for the opposition Peoples Progressive Party Civic (PPPC) in the 11th Parliament.

Then Shadow Finance Minister in the 10th Parliament, Carl Greenidge, had blamed the lack of such legal expertise for the tardy drafting of APNU’s proposed amendments to the Anti-Money Laundering Countering the Financing of Terrorism (AML/CFT) (Amendment) Bill.
He had said that the government refused the opposition the use of its CPC who operates from the Chambers of the AG.  

Isaacs shared with this news outlet during an interview that he will be making a proposal for the establishment of a legal department for the National Assembly very “early into the new parliament.”

“We need a lot of assistance with the proof reading of bills, giving of legal advice to the Speaker and Clerk. We need that kind of personnel (particularly) for very complex matters of legal natures,” says the Clerk.

The establishment of a legal department in the National Assembly will also enhance the independence of the Legislative branch of government (parliament), from the Executive.

During the 10th Parliament it was revealed that the Clerk of the National Assembly engaged in a practice of sending bills passed in the National Assembly to the AG’s Chambers before sending them to the President for him to give or refuse his assent. Despite Isaac’s explanation that this has been the practice since pre-independence times, there is no legal justification for it.

In fact, the Standing Orders (SOs) of the National Assembly dictate that bills which have been passed are taken into the possession of the Clerk, who then must send same to the President.

According to SO 67; “every Bill passed by the National Assembly shall remain in the custody of the Clerk who shall, subject to Article 164 of the Constitution, at the earliest opportunity, submit the Bill to the President for his or her assent and the President shall assent in accordance with Article 170 of the Constitution.”

This practice was never flagged before the 10th Parliament. This is due to the fact that prior to the 10th Parliament political parties which won the reins of the Executive branch of government also managed to cop the majourity of seats in the National Assembly. 

As such, bills which did not have the support of the Executive were never passed in the National Assembly.

This changed in the 10th Parliament when the PPPC won the Executive but lost the majourity in the National Assembly. 

Together, APNU and the AFC held 33 seats while the PPPC held 32.

The opposition parties were therefore able to pass bills which did not have the favour of the Executive. Such was the case with the Local Government (Amendment) Bill and the Former Presidents’ Pension, Utility and Other Facilities Bill 2012. In the case of the former bill, it and three others, after being passed in the National Assembly, spent three months at the AG’s Chambers before they were sent to the President. The opposition parties as well as other critics had argued that the PPPC was using this procedure to cheat the system established by the constitution.

Article 170 (3) of the Constitution says that if the president refuses to assent to a bill he or she has twenty-one days to return it to the Speaker along with a message stating the reasons why he or she has withheld assent.

Nandlall argued that after being passed all bills need to be sent to the AG’s Chambers to be scrutanised. He further argued that as the bills were sent to the Chambers before being sent to the President, the twenty-one days referred to in Article 170 (3) does not commence until they leave the AG’s Chambers for the president’s office.

It was this issue which sparked calls for the National Assembly to have its own parliamentary counsel.

Williams maintains that “when a bill is passed by the parliament it goes into the custody of the Clerk, the clerk then sends to the president.” He also said that “during that period the president is free to send it to the AG’s chambers.”