The Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC) took to court in 2011 Pravind Jugnauth, the leader of the MSM, who was then Minister of Finance and who had placed his approving signature on an internal administrative memo relating to a reallocation of funds to allow the then government to purchase the MedPoint clinic, for having thus involved himself in a case of conflict of interest under section 13(2) of the Act.
The case came for trial before the Intermediate Court which decided on 30th June 2015 that Pravind Jugnauth was guilty of the charge laid against him by the ICAC. The latter appealed the IC’s judgement to the Supreme Court, claiming that he had only acted administratively post the then government’s decision to purchase the clinic and was therefore not involved in a case of conflict of interest.
On 25th May 2016, the Supreme Court presided over by Chief Justice K P Matadeen and Judge AA Caunhye, overturned the decision of the Intermediate Court on the grounds that the then Minister of Finance, Pravind Jugnauth, had acted in good faith devoid of guilty intent, that his action did not involve a “personal interest” inasmuch as the company (the MedPoint clinic) in which his sister has a shareholding interest, is distinct and separate from its individual shareholders and that he ceased having any conflicting interest in the execution of a contract (the approval given to reallocate funds) once the concerned public body (the government) had already awarded the purchase contract to the concerned company (MedPoint).
The matter seemed to have come to rest at this point. Pravind Jugnauth having been stood up in his appeal against the decision of the Intermediate Court and, hence, freed from the conviction issued against him, was given the portfolio of the Ministry of Finance in the government, a position he is occupying today. There was a resumption of serenity on the political front, as the newly appointed minister was going about with consultations in the preparation of this year’s budget, which is viewed in certain quarters as the make-it-or-break-it moment for the government.
On 8th June 2016, the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) applied to the Supreme Court for leave to appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, our final court of appeal, against the judgement handed down by the Supreme Court on 25th May on the grounds that the judgement is “wrong in law”, that it raises important questions of interpretation as regards the issue of conflict of interest mentioned in section 13(2) of the Act, that it puts into question the determination of other cases involving conflicts of interest and that it constitutes “a precedent not conducive to the public interest in the proper administration of justice”. These are valid points and deserve to be thrashed out in full and final conclusion as to this peripatetic journey of the case.
Assuming that the leave applied for by the DPP is granted by the Supreme Court, the decision of the Privy Council will be salutary to put to rest once and for all the multiple interpretations given so far to the provisions of section 13(2) of the Act, having had collateral overturning effects on the political establishment. We need to know what exactly constitutes the fundamental flaw in the legislation which makes it prone to diverse conflicting interpretations and which introduces a risk that other clear cases of abuse may escape the law, leaning on the present judgement as a precedent.
It will be to the credit of Pravind Jugnauth to face once again the judicial process, as he has done before, if the leave applied for by the DPP is granted. Whatever the decision of the Law Lords, he would thereby have stood up the test of fire to the very end and not cast aspersion on the judiciary when its decision did not go as he had expected it to be. He will have to be brave enough to go this further mile whatever its consequences on his political career. We can only hope that the country also doesn’t lose its serenity.
One can make out easily that the DPP has no alternative than to want to see clearly once and for all as to what the judicial system should make out of the issue of conflict of interest. As things stand as of now, he apprehends that there are cases which will drop into uncertain territory based on the judgement given by the SC on 25th May. It must be understood that the strength of Mauritius depends and will keep depending very much on how independently and objectively our public institutions defend the brief they’ve been entrusted with. The DPP’s stance is one such case in point.
* Published in print edition on 10 June 2016