Appointment of Chancellor, Chief Justice
Debate on problem proviso deferred
Hoyte urges Jagdeo to withdraw it

By Patrick Denny
Stabroek News
June 8, 2001

Debate in Parliament on a controversial proviso on the naming of top legal officers was deferred yesterday in the wake of a letter by PNC/R leader Desmond Hoyte to President Bharrat Jagdeo saying it was a "grave breach of faith and of trust".

Consideration of the bill was deferred to allow for consultation on the proposed amendment to Article 127.

The announcement came in the backdrop of chants by a small but noisy band of PNC REFORM (PNC/R) protestors calling for the proviso included in the amendment to be withdrawn.

Parliamentary Affairs Minister, Reepu Daman Persaud told the House that consideration of the bill was being deferred to allow for consultations with the PNC/R about the proviso included in the Constitution (Amendment)(No.4) Bill.

Article 127 deals with the appointment of the Chancellor of the Judiciary and the Chief Justice. The proposed amendment, recommended by the Oversight Committee on constitutional reform and unanimously approved by the Seventh Parliament, called for the appointments to be made after the agreement of the Leader of the Opposition had been obtained. However, the bill before the National Assembly includes a proviso that would allow the President to make the appointments, taking into account the views of the Leader of the Opposition, if after two months there had been no agreement between the two.

PNC/R chairman, Robert Corbin, told a press conference convened earlier in the day at the Congress Place headquarters of his party that the proviso had been unilaterally included by the government without consultation with his party.

He told reporters then that if the proviso was not withdrawn his party would not support the bill that required a two?thirds majority for all but two of its clauses to be enacted.

The threat to withhold his party's support for the bill echoed the request made by PNC/R leader Hoyte in a letter to President Jagdeo on Wednesday that the provision be withdrawn. He cautioned that if it was not, his party would not support the bill. In parliament yesterday, Corbin had tabled a motion to have the issue discussed as a matter of urgent public importance but withdrew it after he was informed by Persaud that the bill was being deferred.

The PNC/R's opposition to the bill was based on what it said was an undermining of the procedure sanctioned by the Constitution Reform Commission, the Select Committee which considered the recommendation and the Oversight Committee which approved the amendments that were based on the recommendation.

That procedure required a consensual process for appointing the two top officers of the Judiciary.

Corbin rejected the unilateral inclusion of the proviso saying that "it is difficult to conceive of a grosser act of bad faith and deception than this."

Corbin rejected the argument that the pool from which such appointments could be made was small, stressing that if a person did not enjoy the confidence of both sides the appointment should not go forward.

Corbin also referred to the government's tardiness in bringing the outstanding constitutional amendments to the National Assembly. This was another issue which was raised by Hoyte in his letter to President Jagdeo.

Asked for an explanation for the inclusion of the proviso, a PPP/Civic parliament essayed the explanation that it was in accord with the legal principle that the issue should not be unduly prolonged in the public interest.

The parliamentarian told Stabroek News that a proper reading of the proviso would show it did not allow the President to act unilaterally if there was an opportunity that an agreement was possible.

But the PPP/C back?bencher said that the crux of the matter was the distrust between the two parties, resulting in suspicion of everything one side or the other did.

In his letter, circulated to the media, Hoyte recalled the process to which the recommendation from the Constitution Reform Commission had been subjected and the unanimous agreement reached that "the Chancellor and the Chief Justice shall each be appointed by the President acting after obtaining the agreement of the Leader of the Opposition" (Article 127[1]).

That bill ? the Constitution (Amendment)(No.4) Bill 2001 ? was tabled for its first reading on May 31, by the Minister of Parliamentary Affairs to give effect to the aforementioned procedure.

"To our utter amazement, we observed that surreptitiously, unilaterally and without any consultation, the government has tampered with the relevant clause by inserting a proviso as follows: "Provided that if there is no agreement within two months the President shall make the appointment taking into consideration the views of the Leader of the Opposition"."

Hoyte asserted that "this action is indefensible and constitutes a grave breach of faith and of trust. My Party and I are therefore deeply disappointed that the government has elected to proceed in this manner. In the circumstances, I am requesting that the offending proviso be withdrawn. Unless this is done, People's National Congress REFORM will in duty bound be compelled to withhold support for the Bill which comes up for debate tomorrow (yesterday)." Hoyte also referred to the agreement which had been reached at his meeting with Jagdeo on April 24, that "all pending Constitutional legislation will be passed within one month of the convening of Parliament".

He pointed out that Parliament was convened on May 4, "but, despite our strenuous efforts to have all the legislation tabled in the National Assembly to achieve the deadline, this was not done."

He said that the government's action "threatens to undermine our credibility and jeopardise the success of our ongoing talks".

Among the other amendments in the bill were amendments to raise the age of retirement from 65 to 68 for judges of the Court of Appeal and from 62 to 65 for the other judges; removing the power of the President to extend the tenure of judges; calling on the State to provide such pay and conditions of service that would remove the need for judges to return to the Bar to practise after retirement; and extending the definition of judicial misconduct to include the failure to write decisions within a period specified by parliament.

Other amendments too address the securing of the independence of the Office of the Auditor General by putting it under the general supervision of the Public Accounts Committee.

Among the bills that were deferred were amendments to Article 197 to include a reiteration of the duties of the Guyana Defence Force and the Police Force and to provide for the establishment of a Disciplined Forces Commission as necessary "to examine the composition and structure of the disciplined forces to give effect to the need for the composition of the disciplined forces to take account of the ethnic constituents of the population."

Another bill, the Constitution (Amendment)(No 6) Bill included amendments which would provide for the establishment of parliamentary standing committees on natural resources, economic services, foreign relations and social services. It also provides for the establishment of a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Constitutional Reform to "continually review the working of the Constitution with a view to making proposals for reform".