Civil Court issues injunction against releasing funds for MPs’ committee allowance

The Civil Court last night issued a temporary injunction ordering the Finance Ministry not to release funds to parliament for MPs’ committee allowance until the court rules on a case filed on behalf of a civil servant, contending that the allowance could not be given before deducted amounts from civil servants salaries were paid back.

A group of concerned citizens protesting the committee allowance filed the case on behalf of Maah Jabeen, Seenu Maradhoo Fenzeemaage, arguing that releasing funds for committee allowance without reimbursing civil servants violated constitutional provisions on fairness and equal treatment.

The committee allowance was approved on December 29, 2010 while wage cuts were enforced in October 2009.

In January 2010, the Civil Service Commission’s (CSC) decided to reverse the pay cuts, sparking an ongoing legal dispute between the commission and the Finance Ministry.

At the height of the dispute last year, permanent secretaries of line ministries were ordered to submit different wage sheets by the commission and the ministry.

Speaking to Minivan News after Judge Hathif Hilmy granted the injunction last night, lawyer Mohamed Shafaz explained that the case was based on article 43 of the constitution, which states that everyone has the right to fair and just administrative action, “by which we take to mean that constitutional provisions in articles 17 and 20 relating to equality and non-discrimination would be infringed of a civil servant if the Ministry of Finance chooses to release the funds for committee allowance to the People’s Majlis before the deducted amounts from the salaries of civil servants is paid to them.”

“Our argument was based on the principle of judicial review,” he continued. “For judicial review to be used in a case in the Maldives is relatively rare and this is I would say a novel case. Our idea is that anyone vested with legal powers must act within the limits of the constitution.”

Delivering the ruling on the request for a temporary injunction, the judge said that releasing the funds before the court issues a final judgment on the case “could cause irreversible damage to the plaintiff” and ordered the Finance Ministry not to take any action that could “defeat the purpose of the claim.”

While the state attorney insisted that neither the Finance Ministry nor the President’s Office has made a decision on releasing the funds, the claimants submitted video footage of President Mohamed Nasheed telling protestors that the executive could not overrule parliament’s decision without threatening separation of powers.

In April 2010, the Civil Court ruled that Finance Ministry did not have the legal authority to overrule the CSC. Although the government contested the ruling and refused to restore salaries to previous levels, the High Court upheld the lower court ruling in May this year.

The state attorney also argued that the case should not have been accepted by the Civil Court as the government has appealed the High Court verdict at the Supreme Court. The judge however ruled last night that the state could not produce documentation proving that the Supreme Court has decided to hear the appeal.

Attorney General Abdulla Muiz confirmed today that the AG office has appealed last night’s lower court decision at the High Court.

Shafaz meanwhile observed that “the ruling [yesterday] affirms that the court recognises that there is an issue here that needs to be rectified or subject to the system of justice.”

“It is also significant because by granting the temporary injunction the court has accepted and taken on an active role for implementing judicial review in the Maldives,” he said. “So this opens up the possibility for each and every action of the executive branch of the government, or the parliament or any other part of the state, to be challenged in the courts.”

Yesterday’s temporary injunction was also significant because “it was based on infringement of the rights of an individual,” Shafaz continued, adding that it was “a case where the act of a minister of the executive could infringe upon the rights of an individual.”

The favoured outcome for the group of concerned citizens would meanwhile be “for the court to recognise that giving parliamentarians their committee allowance before the deducted salary is given would be an infringement of the rights of a civil servant, or civil servants, under the constitution.”


NGOs, concerned citizens launch protest against MPs’ committee allowance

A group of concerned citizens and members of civil society organisations launched a protest today in response to parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) decision last week to issue a lump sum of Rf140,000 (US$9,000) as committee allowance back pay for January through July this year.

If the PAC decision stands, in addition to a monthly salary of Rf62,500 (US$4,000), at the end of August each MP would receive a lump sum of Rf160,000 (US$10,386) as committee allowance.

At a time when the country faces a crippling budget deficit, the back payment of the allowance will cost the state up to Rf12.32 million (US$800,000), rising to Rf76.23 million (US$4.9 million) in wages for 77 MPs for the whole year.

Gathered near the tsunami memorial after 4:30pm today, the protesting citizens handed out flyers to passersby with a graph showing the steep rise of MPs’ remuneration from Rf4,500 (US$292) a month in 2004 to Rf82,500 (US$5,350) a month in 2011.

“MPs do not need to be paid more money to do committee work!” reads the flyer. “It is the duty of MPs. It is one of the most important responsibilities that has to be carried out by MPs.”

As this was “clearly stated in Majlis’ law,” drawing an additional Rf20,000 from public coffers “is a gross injustice to the Maldivian people.”

Aiman Rasheed from Transparency Maldives told Minivan News that the protestors believed the decision to institute a committee allowance was symptomatic of “inherent problems in the entire system.”

“With such a high budget deficit and high inflation, we do not accept that the hike [in remuneration] is at all responsible,” he explained.

Aiman dismissed the argument that a committee allowance would improve parliament productivity: “The rules of Majlis committees, how they function, the relationship of the parties and procedures on proposing bills should be changed. Basically, they should become better people.”

For productivity to increase, said Aiman, parliament as an institution should function better.

Carrying a placard calling on her MP to not accept the allowance, Salma Fikry, executive board member of NGO Democracy House, said that the “pretext [of improving productivity] the MPs are using is utterly ridiculous.”

“The civil servants are in more close proximity to the public, so what about the productivity of civil servants?” she asked.

Salma argued that as committee meetings were “part of MPs’ duties,” the decision to issue Rf20,000 as committee allowances “is an injustice done to the Maldivian people.”

Aiman meanwhile asserted that the decision to issue a lump sum for seven months cast doubts on MPs “sincerity” as each MP would receive the back pay regardless of attendance.

Moreover, Aiman pointed out that parliamentary committees did not function for two months of the current session over a partisan dispute regarding the revision of committee composition.

“These things need to be talked about,” he said. “What we are trying to do is bring this issue to the spotlight and help the public understand […] With a constitution based on parliamentary supremacy, nothing in the country can go right if the MPs aren’t responsible. We want to create grassroots demand about what is going in Majlis and for the public to be aware of it.”

Salma however said she doubted if MPs would be moved by the protests to scrap the controversial allowances.

“Because in January this year we launched quite a strong campaign against the Parliamentary Privileges Act and we also spoke about the committee allowance during that campaign,” she explained. “But what we see today is that civic action is not bearing what it should in this democracy of ours.”

This was the case because state institutions such as the People’s Majlis were “too strong” and “has a lot of vested interest and a lot corruption,” she said.

Aiman concurred that MPs “do not bow to civic pressure” but the NGOs and concerned citizens hoped to “equip the public with relevant knowledge” to hold parliament accountable and achieve a reduction in “the almost exponential [year-on-year] growth” of salaries in the state budget.

“Thirdly, [we want] the public to understand these issues and demand accountability,” he said. “Fourth, we want to broaden the engagement of citizens with the People’s Majlis. And to let the People’s Majlis know that the people are watching you and that the people do care.”