Caribbean Islands Table of Contents

The Governmental System

Trinidad and Tobago in the late 1980s was a bicameral parliamentary democracy based on the Westminster model. The Constitution, which took effect at the time of independence in 1962, was revised in 1976 to provide for an elected president to serve as head of state and commander in chief, a function filled earlier by a governor general appointed by the British monarch. Under the Constitution, Trinidad and Tobago remains a member of the Commonwealth of Nations.

Since independence, Parliament has been the major ruling body in Trinidad and Tobago. The Constitution provides for a bicameral legislature consisting of a Senate and a House of Representatives. The executive consists of the president and the cabinet, headed by the prime minister. The president is elected by the Senate and House of Representatives to serve a five-year term as head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces. He also has the authority to grant pardons under constitutional provisions. The president must be a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago, at least thirty-five years old, and a resident of the country for the preceding ten years. In case of incapacity, the president is succeeded by the president of the Senate, and then by the speaker of the House of Representatives.

The leader of the majority party or majority coalition in the House of Representatives is named prime minister. The prime minister is by far the most powerful figure in the government and is responsible for running the government. The prime minister chooses cabinet ministers from Parliament, who are then appointed by the president, and he can change ministers and ministries at will.

Bills may be introduced in either house, with the exception of money bills, which must be introduced in the House of Representatives. Bills passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate, and signed by the president, become law. The president must call Parliament into session at least once a year and may dissolve Parliament at any time. No Parliament may sit for more than five years; in case of a vote of no confidence, Parliament must be dissolved in seven days. After dissolution, a general election of the House of Representatives must be held within three months. Elections are by secret ballot, and citizens over the age of eighteen are eligible to vote. From independence through 1986, Parliament was never dissolved in less than four years, nor had there been a vote of no confidence.

The Senate is an unelected body; all thirty-one members are appointed by the president. Sixteen senators are appointed after consultation with the prime minister, six on the advice of the leader of the opposition, and nine from among outstanding leaders who must be citizens of Trinidad and Tobago and at least twentyfive years old. A Senate quorum is ten, and all senators are required to leave office upon dissolution of Parliament.

The House of Representatives consists of thirty-six members and has a quorum of twelve. Its number equals the constituencies in the nation, plus the speaker of the House, if the speaker is not already a member of the House. Two of the thirty-six constituencies must be in Tobago. Representatives must be citizens over the age of eighteen who have been residents of Trinidad and Tobago for at least two years. As is the case with senators, representatives must vacate their seats upon dissolution of Parliament. Members of Parliament are protected from prosecution for "words spoken in Parliament."

The Constitution provides for an ombudsman to be appointed by the president after consultation with the prime minister and the leader of the opposition. The ombudsman serves for a five-year term and may be reappointed. He investigates government acts that do not come under the jurisdiction of the courts, after a complaint of injustice has been filed.

In the late 1980s, government continued to be the largest employer. Although government employment traditionally has been considered a privilege, that perception has changed somewhat as salaries in the public sector have failed to keep up with those in the private sector. Since political administrators are expected to be in positions to influence policy, the Constitution authorizes independent public service commissions that are empowered to appoint, promote, transfer, and discipline personnel in the public career. These commissions are intended to protect career officers from political pressure. The public service commissions oversee the appointment of permanent secretaries, as well as judicial, teaching, and police service personnel. A public service commission review board was established in 1966 to receive appeals on disciplinary action taken by the public service commissions.

Public service workers have been categorized as administrative, professional, executive, technical, clerical, and manual. Each division has required an appropriate university, professional, or technical degree or general certificate of education (similar to a high school certificate), although personnel could also be hired in a temporary capacity pending completion of the required degree. The hiring process has included entry exams and an interview process. Although public servants have been allowed to join political parties, they have been barred from appearing on a political platform or campaigning openly for candidates.

The legal and judicial system is based on English common law and practice, and its powers derive from the Constitution. The Supreme Court consists of the High Court of Justice and the Court of Appeal. Other courts include courts of summary jurisdiction and petty civil courts. According to the Constitution, the High Court of Justice consists of the chief justice, who serves ex officio, and a prescribed number of other judges. The judges have equal power, authority, and jurisdiction. There is vested in the High Court the same original jurisdiction as is vested in, or exercised by, the High Court of Justice in Britain under the provisions of the Supreme Court of Judicature (Consolidation Act of 1925 [U.K.]).

The Court of Appeal consists of the chief justice, who serves as president, and a prescribed number of justices of appeal. The Court of Appeal is a superior court of record and, unless specified by Parliament, has all the powers of such a court. The Constitution provides that appeals from the Court of Appeal may be made to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London under certain circumstances. In 1987 Prime Minister Robinson proposed replacing the Privy Council in London with a Caribbean Court of Appeal. This idea was discussed at the 1987 Caricom summit and endorsed by a number of other Caribbean politicians and jurists and by the British, whose taxpayers support all the costs for the London Privy Council; as of late 1987, however, no action had been taken.

The chief justice is appointed by the president, after consultation with the prime minister and the leader of the opposition. The other judges of the Supreme Court are also appointed by the president, acting on the advice of the Judicial and Legal Service Commission.

Political Dynamics

For more recent information about the government, see Facts about Trinidad.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress