First female Chancellor in Caribbean takes oath
Carl Singh is Chief Justice

by Andrew Richards
Stabroek News
May 5, 2001

Justice Desiree Bernard created history yesterday when she was sworn in as the first female head of the judiciary in the Caribbean. Justice Carl Singh was also sworn in as Chief Justice at the Office of the President yesterday before President Bharrat Jagdeo.

The new Chancellor was appointed after consensus between the President and Opposition Leader Desmond Hoyte. General Secretary of the PNC REFORM Oscar Clarke told Stabroek News yesterday that no agreement was reached on the appointment of the Chief Justice.

Chancellor Bernard immediately pledged to tackle issues affecting the judiciary to improve the service delivered to members of the public.

President Jagdeo said he was extremely pleased and privileged to have had the honour to appoint the first female Chancellor in the Caribbean and expressed confidence that the judiciary was in safe hands.

"Chancellor Bernard will lead the process of change in the judiciary so that it responds to the needs of our people," President Jagdeo stated after congratulating the new appointees.

"I will stoutly defend the independence of the judiciary, but I'm sure there is a need to make some changes," he said.

He noted that Chancellor Bernard would be the first to benefit from the change in the Constitution, which includes a provision to extend the term of office to age 68.

The new Chancellor is 61 years old. Her predecessor, Chancellor Cecil Kennard, reached the previous retirement age of 65 in January.

President Jagdeo congratulated both Chancellor Bernard and Chief Justice Singh on their appointments and said he felt sure they were capable of carrying out their duties.

The new Chancellor said she was "elated" and "pleased" at her appointment and noted it was her fervent hope that the service of the judiciary to the public would be improved during her tenure.

"I am very, very concerned about the delays, the lack of judges, and the lack of confidence that the public has in the judiciary," Chancellor Bernard told reporters after the swearing-in ceremony.

She dedicated her tenure to turning things around in the judiciary and expressed the desire to see that herself and Chief Justice Singh achieved this objective.

The shortage of judges was created when a few of them retired some years ago and Chancellor Bernard disclosed that another one would be retiring in nine days.

The Chancellor said with the eight judges now in the High Court, this would mean there would be a shortage of four judges. The new head of the judiciary said she hoped the number could be increased now that the President has agreed to augment the complement to about 15, but felt there would be some problem in identifying persons to fill the vacancies.

She said persons in private practice would have to be induced to join the judiciary and she revealed that she had some ideas to implement when she met them.

"When I settle down I will try to meet them and use all the persuasion I can," she stated.

Chancellor Bernard pointed out that May 4 (yesterday) was the same day she was appointed to the Court of Appeal nine years ago.

Chief Justice Singh said he had no prior indication that he would have been appointed to his current post but it showed the President's confidence in him to perform the duties.

He said one of the issues he would like to immediately address was devising a method to ensure the timely delivery of justice.

He noted that not all the criticisms of the judiciary were unjustified but asserted that the system was plagued by a number of problems that were unknown to the outsider.

He said if these problems became known, then the public would appreciate the work the judges put out under such conditions.

"I don't offer that as an excuse which [is one of the problems that] plagues some trials but these are issues that have to be tackled," the Chief Justice said.

He noted that the shortage of judges would have some impact on the workload and would have to be addressed by the Judicial Service Commission.

The appointments came following talks between PNC REFORM leader Desmond Hoyte and President Jagdeo on Monday.

Prior to the appointments, there was speculation as to who would be the new Chief Justice. The Chancellor's appointment was clear cut.

The front runners were the new Chief Justice, who has six years experience as a judge, and Justice Claudette Singh, who has been a judge for some 13 years. Both appointments were at the discretion of the President, even though he had to consult the Opposition Leader under the present constitutional arrangements.

However, the proposed amendment to the Constitution would provide that the Opposition Leader must agree to the appointments.