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Feb 24, 2004

Supreme Court reinstates fired civil servants

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The Supreme Court today handed down a landmark judgement in a case that challenged the constitutionality of the forced retirement of four public officers last year. And the effects of the ruling will be felt in Belmopan for quite some time. On September eighteenth, 2003, four senior employees of the Customs Department were sent home, retired in what the government said was “in the interest of the public service.” But Darrel Smith, Benedict Palacio, Victor Recinos, and Egbert Flowers didn’t go quietly; they took the government to court. Today, Chief Justice Dr. Abdulai Conteh lowered the boom on government, ruling that their dismissal was unconstitutional and illegal. Conteh then ordered that the four officers be reinstated immediately, and that all salaries and benefits be paid to them retroactive to September eighteenth, the day they were terminated. The officers’ attorney, Dean Barrow, says the judgement is a victory not only for the four customs officers, but for all civil servants.

Dean Barrow, Defence Attorney

“Well it certainly has far reaching implications in terms of those who’ve been retired years ago on this basis. I don’t know that they would get very far if they tired to reopen their cases now, but for those that have been recently retired I can think of the ex-Postmaster General, for whom I had already lodged a constitutional motion, somebody who was at the Air Traffic Control Department. For people like those, certainly, it seems to me that government will have to take them back or come to some arrangement with them whereby government pays them as though they had reached the compulsory retirement age of fifty-five.”

“The basis on which the Chief Justice found as he did, number one that there was a breech of the natural justice rights of these applicants, but number two, and this has been my central argument, under the regulations governing the public service it is provided that the Public Services Commission can retire any public officer in the public interest, without more. I argued throughout that that cannot mean what it appears to mean, that you can just simply say to a public officer, well I don’t like you but since I’m going to pay you off, I can tell you to go home and call it retirement in the public interest. My argument was that you can only retire a public officer short of the compulsory retirement age of fifty-five if you can show cause; if he is guilty of some kind of infraction, some kind of dereliction of duty. And that was the central finding of the Chief Justice. He agreed with me and he disagreed with the Attorney General represented by Mr. Derek Courtenay, senior counsel, so that he found that the traditional practice of governments to say to public officers, I am going to send you home, it’s not disciplinary, I don’t accuse you of wrongdoing, so I’m going to pay you your pension benefits although I’m going to calculate those as of the age you were when I retired you and therefore you can have no complaint, the Chief Justice found that that cannot be correct.”

“What it does really Patrick is to enshrine the security of tenure of all public officers, which I think is a wonderful thing for our democracy because public officers are supposed to be independent. Public officers are not supposed to act at the whim and fancy of the particular ruling political directorate. But as long as they felt that they could be gotten to, if you will, if they did not carry out nakedly political directives, there was a chance that that independence would prove more illusory than real. Now I think public officers can feel confident in the knowledge that they can discharge their functions truly without fear of favour because no government can retire them unless that government can find and prove fault.”

Although the judgement is with immediate effect, Government has twenty-one days in which it can appeal the Chief Justice’s ruling. A press office release late this afternoon says that government is studying the decision before deciding whether it will appeal. Of the four officers, News 5 understands that only one of them wants his job back and the others will opt for financial settlement.

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