British team stresses need for changes in judicial system here by Wendella Davidson
Guyana Chronicle
October 5, 2001

THE need for change in some aspects of Guyana's judicial system, if the quality of justice is to be improved, has been underscored by a three-member team of legal experts from the United Kingdom.

These include certain areas which they say require "particular and in some cases urgent attention".

Among the areas they have identified are delays in bringing cases to court, the issue of custody, the need for more judges and magistrates and of critical importance, the non-production of law reports since 1975.

The team was headed by Judge Martin Stephens, QC, who has functioned as a judge at the Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey) since 1999. Other members were Ms. Judith Lennard, head of Appointments Policy at the Lord Chancellor's Department, and Mr. Mark Camely, Director, Criminal Business in the UK Court Service.

Their task entailed following up on the findings of the just-released report by UK Judges Esyr Lewis and John Baker, who were contracted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the UK.

Lewis and Baker spent April to July 2000 here, assisting to draw up revised rules for the administration of the courts of justice; drafting a training manual; setting out the standards for all legal personnel in the administration of the courts of justice and assisting as seen necessary in reducing the backlog of civil cases.

At a news conference at the Court of Appeal yesterday, at which Chancellor of the Judiciary Desiree Bernard; Chief Justice Carl Singh; British High Commissioner Edward Glover and team members Lennard and Camely were present, Justice Stephens pointed out that their work during the week was with a view to lending whatever assistance the UK judicial system can, to those committed to improving the quality of justice here.

On the issue of delay in bringing cases to court, to trial and conclusion, the UK legal expert noted that it is a well-known legal aphorism that justice delayed is justice denied.

He cautioned that the effect on victims, defendants, and persons close to the affected " can be very serious."

Judge Stephens said too that people who are kept in jail for years awaiting trial may be shown to be innocent. People who have valid claims for damages may be kept out of their money so that they are ruined, he said.

Noting that the team can only offer suggestions on ways to alleviate the situation, the judge alluded to the system of preliminary inquiry (PI) conducted in criminal cases, which he said is cumbersome and a very significant cause of delay.

He pointed out that it can be "dramatically reformed" as had been done in the UK, if it is the desire of the legal profession here.

"People could be committed for trial on the basis of sworn written statements of witnesses, or even in the most serious cases, sent straight to the High Court within a week or two of being charged.

"In that court, the judges would then have the management of the cases; they could impose a strict timetable for all the procedures that lead to an early trial.

"The right of defendants to submit they have no case to answer would be fully protected," he added.

Commenting on the sore issue of custody, Judge Stephens contended that time limits could be introduced, which means that trials would have to start within a maximum period after charge or committal to the High Court.

If this was not done the defendant would have the right to bail, he said.

The team viewed as of crucial importance the desperate need for more High Court Judges, and Magistrates in the lower court, a situation that was also highlighted in the report of judges Lewis and Baker.

Equally so, as is obtained in the UK, they (judges and magistrates) must be remunerated appropriately, so that high standards can be maintained and even improved, they said.

In suggesting that part-time judges could be considered, which will allow for practising lawyers to sit for four to six weeks a year, Judge Stephens pointed out though "they (practising lawyers) would have to be properly trained, as would permanent judges, both on appointment and on a regular basis."

Law reports are considered the tools of the trade of the judiciary, but the team found that none have been produced and published here since 1975.

Noting that such omissions "must be put right", the team leader reminded that law reports are now made available on CD-ROM, as well as on the Internet, and could be a major source of information for judges and lawyers.

Despite the shortcomings, Stephens said he and the team were impressed by the commitment of Chancellor Bernard and Chief Justice Singh, the Government of Guyana and the Bar Council to improving the justice system, and are of the assurance that progress will be made soon.

High Commissioner Glover said the team discussed the legal reform issues with President Bharrat Jagdeo; Ms. Bernard; Chief Justice Singh; Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Desmond Hoyte; Attorney General, Doodnauth Singh; Director of Public Prosecutions, Dennis Hanomansingh; Director of Prisons, Dale Erskine; Acting Police Commissioner, Floyd McDonald; Registrar of the Supreme Court, Sita Ramlall, the Executive of the Bar Council and the Guyana Human Rights Association.

In addition, they attended a sitting of the Full Court and briefly observed a criminal case at the High Court.

The team, Glover added, sought every opportunity while here to explain the changes made in the UK legal system in recent years to ensure greater effectiveness and efficiency.

In addition, the legal structures in the UK being similar to what obtains here, put the team in a good position to put their experience at the country's disposal, he said.

The High Commissioner assured that the UK with its commitment to common law, will continue to take a close interest in the implementation of reforms to bring justice closer to the people.

"We want these planned reforms to succeed; and if our experience can help them we would be delighted," he said, pointing out though that the responsibility for any change lies in the hands of the powers that be in the local system.

The envoy noted too that the application of common law binds the two countries together and although the UK had its own difficulties, it made substantial strides to put in place a fairer and more efficient system.

President Jagdeo, the judiciary, the legal profession and others are all clearly committed to rapid change in order to improve the delivery of justice, and if the UK can assist the process, it would have underpinned reforms owed to everyone, he said, while reminding that the watchwords of any society must be "accountability and transparency".

Chancellor Bernard, who noted that the judiciary is cognisant of the issue of delays and the problems that ensue as a result, said efforts are still being made to bring about some resolve.

To this end, they have been engaging the Bar Association with a view to identifying persons who can be appointed.

The major obstacle though is remuneration, which needs to be addressed if suitable legal professionals are to be attracted, she said.

This was endorsed by Chief Justice Singh.

According to her, the Chief Justice, whose duty is to assign judges, is currently hard pressed to execute his task, since of a complement of about 12 judges plus the Chief Justice, there is need for three such personnel.

Another problem is that although legislation has been passed in the National Assembly making provision for an increase in the complement of judges, no action can be taken because the guidelines are still to be set out, she said.