Chancellor, Chief Justice agree on priorities for reform

by George Barclay
Guyana Chronicle
May 12, 2001

COMPUTERISATION of the Supreme Court Registry and increases salaries for judges and magistrates are among the improvements envisaged by both the Chancellor and the Chief Justice for improving the judicial system in Guyana.

This came to light at a historic sitting of the Supreme Court of Judicature yesterday in the Court of Appeal building to welcome the recently appointed Chancellor Ms Desiree Bernard and new Chief Justice, Mr Carl Singh.

Mr Cecil Dhurjon, Senior Counsel, speaking on behalf of the Attorney General, said that the Chancellor has over 30 years experience in the legal field having worked in turn as a solicitor, magistrate, High Court Judge, Justice of Appeal and Chief Justice.

"You are the first female in Guyana to hold these judicial posts and the first in the Caribbean to be elevated as Chief Justice. And now you hold a judicial office for which there is no Commonwealth Caribbean equivalent, the Caribbean countries not having their own Court of final appeal," Dhurjon said.

Speaking after the Chief Justice had, in his reply, told about his restoration and improvement plan to bring about progress in the Supreme Court, Chancellor Bernard congratulated the Chief Justice and added:-

"Our goals are identical. His plan for the restoration of confidence in the judiciary is similar to mine. I am positive that together we can achieve this objective and restore it to its former glory.

"The Chief Justice has raised issues which mirror identically my views and plans in relation to the use of computer technology as well as continuing judicial education.

"I shall strive to justify your confidence and I wish to draw from that vast reservoir of goodwill which has been stored up for me as I embark on my tenure as Chancellor of the Judiciary.

"I am confident that with God's help I can and will succeed," the Chancellor said.

She noted that 20 and a half years ago when she took the oath of office as a judge of the High Court of Judicature, she had not the slightest inkling that the start of her judicial career would propel her into the highest Judicial position in Guyana.

Ms Bernard added: "It is not an office that I sought, but one which I have acceded to through effluxion of time and the hand of God which has always guided me in all of my affairs. It is natural for me to feel a sense of pride."

Speaking after 12 persons including the Director of Public Prosecutions, the President of the Guyana Bar Association, the President of the Association of Women Lawyers and Justice Nandram Kissoon, the Chancellor disclosed:

"Our people have lost confidence in our ability and capacity to deliver justice to them speedily and effectively.

"Morale is at its nadir within the ranks of those who have to administer justice as well as within the ranks of the support staff.

"We are all overwhelmed by the continuing increase in litigation and the continuing decrease in the members within the judiciary and the magistracy.

"The list of ills which befall the system continues to grow daily: low salaries, poor working conditions, unmanageable Court loads, poorly trained and unqualified support staff, lack of adequate reading material, archaic office equipment, lost and disintegrating files, just to name a few.

"It is no wonder that the public has lost confidence in the system. Who can blame them? However, the dissatisfaction and loss of confidence primarily stems from a lack of knowledge of how the system works and the hardships under which judicial officers work.

"The main cause for dissatisfaction is the inordinate, delay in having cases heard and determined and decisions given promptly. One is hard-pressed to explain to a litigant why his case filed years ago has still not been heard, or why the case was heard but the decision not given until two or three years later, or why a hearing which eventually began took two years to be completed," the Chancellor noted.

She pointed out that litigants, though appreciative of the shortage of judges or magistrates, can always advance a plausible reason why his or her case must take priority over others.

According to the Chancellor, the public needs answers and needs to be assured that our Courts can provide the type of justice they need.

Litigation, she said, has increased four-fold over the last 20 years since she joined the judiciary.

Persons, Ms Bernard said, have become more aware of their rights and are turning to the Courts to enforce and vindicate abuses of those rights.

The Chancellor added, "We have failed to rise to the occasion. We have failed to deliver. The public regards the Courts as the bastion between litigants, and litigants and the State. And we have to arrest the downward slide into the abyss of despair.

"We have to restore confidence in our system and remove doubts which continue to haunt us," she said.

At this stage, the Chancellor said that she wished to publicly express her sincere gratitude to all members of the judiciary and magistracy for their untiring and unswerving dedication to duty over the years despite adverse working conditions and ever-increasing work-loads.

That, she said, led her to the fact that it has now become imperative and a matter of great urgency that Government should give immediate consideration to increasing the salaries paid to judges and magistrates so as to improve the conditions under which they work.

Chancellor Bernard said: "We will continue to find it difficult to recruit members of the bar to the judiciary if immediate steps are not taken to improve salaries and working conditions.

"Gone are the days when lawyers considered it an honour to be asked to serve on the judicial bench. We live in different times. The paucity of emoluments, inadequate working conditions and low morale, not to mention the constant glare of public scrutiny which the judiciary faces on a daily basis, have all contributed to a reluctance on the part of members of the bar to accept appointments to the judiciary and the magistracy.

"This has to change, and change quickly if we are to improve public confidence in the administration of justice in our country.

"No effort must be spared in equipping the judiciary with all the facilities necessary to dispense justice to our citizens.

"The Courts are the bulwarks of our society and everyone, regardless of race, colour, political affiliation or religious persuasion must be accorded equal access to them. The rule of law must be applied fairly and equally.

"We judges and magistrates must live up to the oath which we take upon appointment, that is to dispense justice without fear or favour, affection or ill will.

"Our President recently expressed his commitment to preserving the independence of the judiciary and I am sure that he will do everything in his power to ensure that this is so," Chancellor Bernard noted.

Witnessing the historic moment were members of the diplomatic corps, former Chancellors, former Chief Justices and Justices of Appeal and members of the legal profession.

Welcome speeches were delivered by the DPP, Mr Dennis Hanomansingh; Ms Anande Trotman, President of Guyana Bar Association; Ms Rosemary Benjamin-Noble, President of the Association of Women Lawyers; Chief Magistrate, Mr Paul Fung-A-Fat; Mr. Clarence Hughes, S.C., Mr Ralph Ramkarran, S.C. and Justices Nandram Kissoon and Winston Moore.