Lucas et Al v The Chief Education Officer et Al

CourtCaribbean Court of Justice
Docket NumberCCJ Appeal BZCV2014/001; BZ Civil Appeal No. 44 of 2010
JudgeNelson, J., Saunders, J., Wit, J., Hayton, J., Anderson, J.
Judgment Date22 Apr 2015
JurisdictionCaribbean States

Caribbean Court of Justice

Nelson, J. CCJ.; Saunders, J. CCJ.; Wit, J. CCJ.; Hayton, J. CCJ.; Anderson, J. CCJ.

CCJ Appeal BZCV2014/001; BZ Civil Appeal No. 44 of 2010

Lucas et al
and
The Chief Education Officer et al
Appearances

Ms. Magali Marin-Young SC for the appellants.

Mr. Nigel Hawke and Ms. Marcia Mohabir for the respondents.

Constitutional Law - Fundamental Rights and Freedoms — Right to a fair trial — Right to work — Whether the Court of Appeal erred when it held that the Appellants' right to work was not infringed — Consideration of Duncan v. Attorney General [1993] L.R.C. 414 — Proper scope of the right to work — Whether the Appellants satisfied the Court on the facts that the investigatory suspensions imposed on the Appellants so altered the contractual relationship between the Appellants and the Ministry of Education amounted to an infringement of their right to work — Equal Protection of the Law — Whether the Court of Appeal was correct in finding that there was no breach of the equal protection clause as it was inapplicable to the investigative process and did not apply to the investigative team was not charged to take disciplinary action against the Appellants — Consideration of interpretation of section 6 (1) of Constitution in Fort Street Tourism Village v. Attorney General [1993] L.R.C. 414 — Circumstanced comparator — Right to be heard — Consideration of Attorney — General and others v. Joseph and Boyce (2006) 69 W.I.R. 104 — Consideration of the limits of the protection of law in Harrikissoon v. Attorney — General [1980] A.C. 265 — Whether the trial judge correctly found that since the investigation and suspension were regarded as a preliminary stage the right to be heard implicit in Sections 3(a) and 6(1) of the Constitution of Belize were not engaged — Consideration of Rees v. Crane [1995] A.C. 321 and Gafoor v. Attorney General CV 2012—00876 — Imputed knowledge — Vindicatory damages — Appeal dismissed and Court of Appeal's decision affirmed — Sections 6(1), 6(7) and 15 (1) of the Constitution of Belize

JUDGMENT SUMMARY
DECISION OF JUSTICES NELSON, HAYTON AND ANDERSON
1

This appeal arose out of a decision by the Minister of Education to hold an investigation in 2008 into the apparent unrest and tension at the Escuela Secundaria Tecnica de Mexico (“the School”) and the subsequent decision of the Chief Education Officer, after the investigating team had reported to the Minister, to suspend Ms. Lucas and Ms. Carillo (“the appellants”) from their posts as Principal and Vice-Principal respectively of the School. The appellants challenged their suspension by filing a mixed claim for judicial review and constitutional relief. Both the trial judge and the Court of Appeal quashed the suspensions on the basis that the power of suspension lay with the School Board and not with the Chief Education Officer. In the view of the lower Courts, there was no breach of any constitutional rights. The appeal to the CCJ was predicated on the basis that the appellants' constitutional rights were breached by the manner in which the investigations ordered by the Minister were conducted and the manner in which they were suspended.

2

Before considering the substantive appeal, the CCJ dismissed the preliminary point raised by the Respondent that the appellants' case was an abuse of process. The Respondent argued that the appellants could not file a claim for constitutional relief in circumstances where their complaint really centred on matters of public/administrative law. The CCJ criticized the fact that this matter was being argued for the first time, stating that the time to raise such an issue was when the appellants first sought leave to apply for judicial review. The Court held that the Respondent could not raise this objection at this late stage after having previously failed to raise the issue before the lower Courts.

3

The remaining issues for the Court's consideration were related to whether any constitutional rights had been breached. The Court held that the right to work as contained in section 15 of the Constitution was not breached. The appellants had contended that their suspensions constituted an alteration of their contractual relationship with the Ministry, which triggered an infringement of section 15. In rejecting this argument, the Court posited that while the right to work is an important socio-economic right, the scope of such a right must vary dependent on the economic well-being of the country. The Court cited with approval the case of Fort Street Tourism Village v. Attorney General [(2008) 74 W.I.R. 133] which held that in Belize the right to work has to be interpreted as an opportunity to earn a living and not as a guarantee of employment. Therefore, a section 15 breach would only arise in circumstances where a public authority, much like the Ministry of Education, placed an unjustifiable fetter on a citizen's right to freely choose or practise a trade or profession. No such action had been taken to prevent the appellants from practising the teaching profession. The Court was unconvinced that the suspensions triggered a breach of the right to work.

4

The Court also concluded that there was no breach of the equal protection of the law clause or the right to protection of the law as contained in sections 3(a), 6(1) and 6(7). The Court acknowledged that while the protection of the law could be widely construed, they were not prepared to find a breach solely based on the improper exercise of the power of suspension; a matter which had already been addressed by the lower Courts in quashing the suspensions.

5

The Court then turned to consider whether the right to protection of the law was violated by the procedural aspects of the conduct of the investigation. The Court affirmed that there was a duty placed on the investigative team to act fairly but noted that there was no universal definition on what fairness demands. While there was some jurisprudence to support the appellants' argument that they had a right to be heard ( Rees v. Crane [[1995] AC 321]), each case had to be decided on its own facts. The Court agreed with the Court of Appeal that the investigation and suspensions occurred at a preliminary stage and therefore it did not give rise to constitutional relief.

6

The Court also found that in order to succeed on the issue of equal protection, the appellants would have to prove that they were treated differently from those in comparable circumstances. The actual comparator chosen by the appellants, the former principal of the school was inapposite. The comparator could be distinguished on the basis that the present case involved investigative proceedings while that of the comparator involved disciplinary proceedings.

7

On the issue of vindicatory damages, the Court acknowledged that the purpose of vindicatory damages is to vindicate a constitutional right by reflecting the sense of public outrage; underlining the importance of the constitutional right and deterring future breaches: Attorney General of Trinidad and Tobago v. Ramanoop. [ [2006] 1 A.C. 328 (PC) at [19].] However owing to the failure to establish a breach of any constitutional rights, the issue of an award of vindicatory damages did not arise. The appellants as public officers were accountable to the public. Any distress or embarrassment suffered over and above fair accountability could be remedied through the laws relating to defamation, malicious falsehood or judicial review.

8

The Court therefore dismissed the appeal and affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeal. It further ordered that costs be paid by the appellants.

DISSENTING OPINIONS OF JUSTICES SAUNDERS AND WIT
9

In separate, though complementary dissenting opinions, Justices Saunders and Wit concluded that the appellants had established that there was a breach of the right to protection of the law. Their dissenting opinions both emphasise the broad parameters of the right to protection of the law which is rooted in the concepts of fairness and the rule of law as intimated by the decisions in Attorney General v. Joseph & Boyce [(2006) 69 W.I.R. 104] and Samaroo v. The Principal of Point Fortin Junior Secondary School. [HCA No. S. Cv 536 of 1998, 2nd April 2001] A key component of this right is that persons who have been subjected to manifestly unjust and unfair State action must be granted redress that is meaningful.

10

Considering the matter in the round, namely the unfairness inherent in the procedures used to conduct the investigations and the accompanying widespread publicity, the dissenting judges suggested that this was an appropriate case for an award of damages. Drawing upon the principles in James v. Attorney General [(2010) 78 W.I.R. 443] the judges emphasised that damages for breach of constitutional rights do not solely cover economic loss but also cover distress, anxiety, hardship, mental and emotional trauma. Thus the appellants ought to have been compensated for the serious injury visited upon their professional reputations.

This summary is not intended to be a substitute for the reasoning of the Caribbean Court of Justice or to be used in any later consideration of the Court's reasoning.

NELSON J.CCJ., HAYTON J.CCJ., ANDERSON J.CCJ.
1

The appellants, Mrs. Juanita Lucas and Mrs. Celia Carillo, (hereinafter referred to individually as “Mrs. Lucas” and “Mrs. Carillo” and together as “the appellants”) were at all material times the Principal and Vice Principal of the Escuela Secundaria TÉcnica de MÉxico (“ESTM”) located in the Corozal District. ESTM is a secondary school which receives funding from the State and is managed by a Board of Directors. The school has been plagued by a series of administrative upheavals which have led to proceedings before this Court.

2

By separate letters dated April 7, 2008 the Chief Education Officer suspended the appellants for an initial period of 30 days (later...

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