Some criticisms in media border on contempt
- Chancellor Kennard

by Andrew Richards
Stabroek News
October 15, 2000

Issues surrounding the delays in the justice system, relations with the media and problems encountered in carrying out the death penalty are high on the agenda at the Third Commonwealth Caribbean Heads of Judiciary Conference which opened here yesterday.

Chancellor of the Judiciary, Cecil Kennard, in delivering the welcome address to his colleagues from the Region, said the conference provided the opportunity for the heads of the judiciary to interact, share information and for the "cross-fertilisation" of ideas on common issues.

The chief justices here for the conference are Sir Denys Williams, of Barbados; Abdu-lai Conteh of Belize; Anthony Smellie of the Cayman Islands; Sir Dennis Byron of the Eastern Caribbean States; Lensley Wolfe of Jamaica; and Michael de la Bastide of Trinidad and Tobago.

Kennard noted that the respective judiciaries shared many problems, including attracting suitable persons to the bench.

"Some members of the Guyanese public feel that these problems are peculiar to Guyana but if anyone should speak to any of my colleagues from overseas, he will tell you that he has similar problems as we have here in Guyana," the Chancellor said.

He said there were some members of the public who felt that the heads of the judiciary were not doing enough to alleviate the problems litigants faced in not having their cases heard expeditiously.

He called this a misconception, stating that it must be borne in mind that each territory had only a limited number of judges and magistrates to deal with thousands of cases filed each year.

The situation was not helped by other impediments, which the judiciary has to confront. "When we try to get an increase in the complement of judges or some benefit, we are confronted with all sorts of obstacles from the Executive," the Chancellor stated.

He pointed out that three judges of the High Court in Guyana have recently been elevated to the Court of Appeal and one could only guess where their replacements would come from.

Another source of concern for the judiciary in the region was the carrying out of the death penalty.

Kennard said some of the constitutional motions being filed in some of these cases had no merit and only helped to clog the calendar of cases to be heard.

He charged that the Privy Council of England had recently aggravated the situation by ruling that a condemned murderer had the right to be heard by the Advisory Council for the Prerogative of Mercy.

"It is to be noted that the Privy Council has been giving inconsistent judgements on this issue over the years and it does not seem that its members know what direction to take, with all due respect to them," the Chancellor stated.

He conceded that some of the judges and magistrates needed to pull their weight as this was part of the reason they were held in low esteem in some countries. He called on litigants and lawyers to assist the judiciary by avoiding the filing of frivolous claims and to refrain from applying for too many adjournments.

Kennard described the conference as a "unique" and "historic" occasion for Guyana since it was the first time such an event was being hosted in this country.

Giving a brief background of the birth of the conference, the Chancellor said it was the brainchild of Trinidad and Tobago's de la Bastide.

Kennard said de la Bastide mooted the idea shortly after he became Chief Justice in 1995. It was felt that the heads of the judiciary of the Commonwealth Caribbean should meet annually to discuss common problems and try to find solutions.

The inaugural meeting was held in Trinidad and Tobago in 1998.

There the heads of the judiciary discussed important issues such as the delays in the justice system, which Kennard said continued to be a bugbear.

High on that agenda, too, was a discussion on the relationship between the judiciary and the media.

"As we judges know, it is not proper for us to answer criticisms in the press. I sometimes wonder whether judges should not, on occasions, answer some of the unjustifiable criticisms levelled against them," Kennard said. He continued: "Some of the criticisms by the press and letter writers go too far and sometimes border on contempt. Some of the letters written in the press concerning judges and magistrates are in poor taste and they are written by persons who should know better. We have reached the stage here in Guyana where cases are being tried in the press. I do not know where we are heading. It seems to me there is too much of freedom these days."

Prime Minister Samuel Hinds, who was the guest speaker at the opening ceremony, pointed out that Guyana was a recovering country and the judiciary was part of the society, which was affected by the constraints of the times.

He thanked the members of the judiciary who chose to forego higher incomes to serve in the system.

Hinds said government's initial thrust in the various programmes was to improve the infrastructure in the country then move on to make the systems better. He said that already a Justice Improvement Programme funded by USAID had been implemented which addressed court management and access training, among other aspects.

The government believed in a strong and independent judiciary, the Prime Minister stated. The judiciary must be independent from the government and other groups in society, he added.

He acknowledged there was a shortfall of personnel and material resources but still urged that there be an improvement in the output.

Noting that the independence of the judiciary was enshrined in the Constitution, Hinds called on its members to embark constantly on self-review and always strive for improvement.

The Chancellor expressed appreciation to President Bharrat Jagdeo for the funding provided for the conference.

Present for the opening of the conference were Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs, Charles Ramson; Minister of Agriculture Reepu Daman Persaud, members of the local legal profession and the diplomatic corps.

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