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REPEAL THE SUMMARY OFFENCES ACT

posted 23 Aug 2013, 10:17 by Gerry Kangalee
Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.” 

Chapter 1 of the
Constitution of Trinidad and Tobago deals with THE RECOGNITION AND PROTECTION OF FUNDAMENTAL HUMAN RIGHTS AND FREEDOMS. Part 1 of the constitution deals with Rights enshrined. It states: ”It is hereby recognised and declared that in Trinidad and Tobago there have existed and shall continue to exist, without discrimination by reason of race, origin, colour, religion or sex, the following fundamental human rights and freedoms...” 
 
It goes on to list eleven (11) enshrined rights enjoyed by citizens of Trinidad and Tobago including (j) freedom of association and assembly. 
 
The gap between what ought to be and what actually exists is nowhere more blatant than in the act of exercising this freedom of assembly. While it is generally accepted that no right is unlimited and that there will be circumstances under which rights will be circumscribed, freedom of assembly is circumscribed, indeed suffocated, by an old colonial ordinance called the
Summary Offences Act. 

According to this 88 year old law “meeting” means “any assembly or gathering of persons called together or held for the purpose of the transaction of matters of public interest or for the discussion of such matters or for the purpose of the expression of views on such matters;”; “public meeting” means any “meeting held in any public place ... ”; 

“Public place” means “any highway, street, public park or garden, any beach and any public bridge, road, lane, footway, square, court, alley or passage, whether a thoroughfare or not; and includes any open or enclosed space to which, for the time being, the public have or are permitted to have access whether on payment or otherwise”. 
 
“Public march” means “any march or procession in a public place comprising (whether wholly or partly) pedestrians, vehicles (however propelled or drawn), or bicycles (however propelled) ...” There are marches which are not defined as public marches e.g. wedding processions, military parades, religious processions etc. 
 
The point is that the law goes on to outline a bureaucratic morass of applying for permission from the Commissioner of Police to hold public meetings and marches and a host of conditions laid down if that permission is to be granted. 
 
According to the law “A person who desires to hold or call together any public meeting shall, at least forty-eight hours but no more than fourteen days before the day on which it is proposed to hold such meeting, notify the Commissioner of Police. (2) Every notification...shall be in writing signed by the person or persons desiring to hold or call together the meeting and shall state— 
 
(a) the address of each of the persons desiring to hold or call together such meeting; (b) the purpose or purposes of the meeting; (c) the place at which the meeting is to be held and the approximate time at which it is to begin; and (d) the name of every speaker other than a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago or a resident who intends to address the meeting. "
 
After going through all this rigmarole, the Commissioner may still put a spoke in the wheel. The law states:
 
 “(3) If the Commissioner of Police, having regard to the time at which, the circumstances in which or the purpose for which any public meeting is to be held has reasonable ground for apprehending that the holding of such meeting may occasion a breach of the peace or public disorder, he may— 
 
(a) subject to subsection (4), in writing, prohibit such meeting; or 

(b) give directions imposing upon the persons holding or calling together such meeting such conditions as appear to him necessary for the preservation of the peace and of public order, and where the notification is incomplete or the Commissioner has reason to believe that any information supplied in pursuance of the requirements of this Part is false, the Commissioner may prohibit such meeting.” 
 
A non-citizen who wishes to address a public meeting must obtain a permit or is liable to a fine of five thousand dollars or to imprisonment for two years. If a meeting is held without notifying the Commissioner or in defiance of a ban by the police or supplies false or misleading information or fails to comply with any condition imposed by the Commissioner is liable to a fine of ten thousand dollars or to imprisonment for two years. 
 
It is just as onerous to hold a public march. There are permits to be applied for, routes to be specified. There are restrictions on the use of loudspeakers and the Commissioner of Police, like in the case of public meetings, “where there are reasonable grounds for apprehending that the public march in respect of which the application is made may occasion a breach of the peace or serious public disorder, refuse the application.” Of course the word reasonable is open to interpretation.

But even if all the demands of the law are complied with, the law states in “118. (1) Notwithstanding anything contained in this Part or in any other written law, if at any time the Minister is satisfied that, by reason of particular circumstances existing in Trinidad and Tobago or in any area thereof, serious public disorder would be occasioned by the holding of public meetings or public marches in Trinidad and Tobago or any area thereof and that it would be in the interest of public safety or public order to do so, he may make an Order, subject to negative resolution of the House of Repre­sentatives, prohibiting for such period not exceeding one month as may be specified in the Order the holding of all public meetings or public marches or of any class of public meeting or public march throughout Trinidad and Tobago or in any part thereof...” 

What is, in fact, being said is that your right to assemble, guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and by the Constitution of Trinidad and Tobago may be circumscribed, restricted, limited, violated, eliminated by the Minister in charge of the police. What use is a right if it cannot be exercised? 
 
This Summary Offences Act is known as Act 31 of 1921 and was actually preceded by Act no. 6 of 1921 and Act no. 12 of 1920. Interestingly, this law was passed in the aftermath of the first general strike, led by dockworkers that took place in the colony of Trinidad and Tobago in 1919. 

It was in that year that the working class, having gone through the hardships of World War One, and influenced by the ideas of Socialism, Garveyism, trade unionism and the Russian revolution brought back to the colony by returning soldiers of the British army (Uriah Butler and AA Cipriani were among those returning soldiers) acted as a class for itself and not just as a class in itself and began that quest for social, political and economic change that exploded eighteen years later in 1937. 

The Summary Offences Act was passed like the Sedition Ordinance and the Strikes and Lockouts Ordinance and the regulations banning prohibited literature in retaliation against the militant workers’ leaders which saw hundreds of workers jailed, dismissed from their jobs and those who were born in other West Indian colonies deported. Check for the restrictions in the law on so-called non-citizens from addressing meetings. 

This very Summary Offences Act exposes its colonial genesis by dealing with other offences which deem people Idle and disorderly persons. It deals with begging, placarding and fortune telling. It defines classes of people called rogues and vagabonds and incorrigible rogues. 
 
In this day and age when people all over the world are demanding that they exercise democratic rights and freedoms and show willingness to fight and die to achieve these, isn’t it time that we demand that the Summary Offences Act must be repealed?
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