Trinidad Taxi Drivers Win Appeal in the Privy Council

15 December 2010

Acting for the Appellants, Peter Knox QC, Ramesh Maharaj SC and Robert Strang who were representing hundreds of maxi taxi drivers from Port of Spain, Trinidad have won their appeal before the Supreme Court Justices in the Privy Council, restoring the decision of the High Court of Trinidad and Tobago which had awarded them damages for an infringement of their constitutional rights. The Privy Council’s judgment (Paponette and others v Attorney General of Trinidad and Tobago [2010] UKPC 32; [2010] WLR (D) 323, Times 15 December 2010) is an important statement of the principles to be followed when considering whether a policy maker can override a substantive legitimate expectation, and gives guidance on the meaning of ‘property’ in the context of constitutional rights.

Maxi taxis (vehicles carrying between 9 and 25 passengers) are a regulated part of the public transport system in Trinidad and Tobago. The maxi taxi drivers on routes in the capital, Port of Spain, were relocated to a new taxi stand facility in 1995. In negotiations before the move, the government minister for transport had promised the maxi taxi drivers that they would manage their new facility and that they would not come under the control of the Public Transport Service Corporation, which owned the land on which the taxi stand was to be built and which operated a competing bus service from a neighbouring facility. In breach of those promises, the government in 1997 introduced regulations making the Corporation the manager of the taxi stand, requiring the maxi taxi drivers to apply to the Corporation for permits and empowering the Corporation to charge a fee for using the stand. In 2001 the Corporation began charging the maxi taxi drivers a fee on each journey.

The maxi taxi drivers brought a constitutional motion, claiming that their property rights had been infringed. They claimed that the regulations i) frustrated their legitimate expectations of a substantive benefit and ii) deprived them of the enjoyment of their property, since the Corporation was empowered to control their business and take a fee from them. Because the regulations were made in breach of their legitimate expectations they were unlawful. Therefore, the interference with their property had been done without due process of law: a breach of the constitutional protection of the right to property.

The Privy Council agreed with the appellants, holding that they had been given a legitimate expectation of a substantive benefit: they would be in control of their own affairs at the new taxi stand. The regulations giving control and the power to charge a fee to the Corporation were a substantial interference with their property rights and were unlawful because they were made in breach of the legitimate expectation. The government could not ask the court to infer that the policy change in 1997 had been in furtherance of an overriding public interest. The onus was on the government to identify the overriding interest and to justify the breach of its promise.

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