Mixed response to President’s idea for judicial ‘watchdog’ committee
Guyana Chronicle
January 8, 2002

PRESIDENT Bharrat Jagdeo’s idea of establishing a Parliamentary Judicial Oversight Committee has received different responses from Parliamentarians Mr. Raphael Trotman and Mr. Khemraj Ramjattan.

In his New Year’s message, President Jagdeo said that he has been exploring the idea of a Parliamentary Judicial Oversight Committee.

According to him, the ‘sheet-anchor’ role of Guyana’s democracy is the rule of law and due process, the custodian of which is that important branch of the State called the judiciary.

He asserted that Guyana has an enviable reputation of producing many legal luminaries and outstanding jurists known for their judicial rectitude.

However, over the years, ordinary people have been complaining about bottlenecks and lethargy in the justice system, Mr. Jagdeo said. This should not be, as unnecessarily protracted trials and delays in handing down judgments, for example, create grave hardships for citizens.

The President said that in the past, attempts to rectify weaknesses in the administration of justice were frowned upon as attacks on the judiciary and as political interference with its independence.

“But in the interest of justice, we need to walk the thin line between non-interference and rectification,” he said.

“We, therefore, need to enhance the mechanism by which ordinary citizens can have more protection and redress under the Law,” Mr. Jagdeo added.

In this regard, the President said, he has been exploring the idea of a Parliamentary Judicial Oversight Committee.

“I intend to seek the support of the political Opposition and civil society organisations for this or any other mechanism which will address this particular concern of our people,” he said.

Attorney-at-law Ramjattan, who is a PPP-Civic Member of Parliament, lauded the idea. He termed it, “a most important and positive step for the purpose of scrutinising and holding the judiciary accountable”.

According to Ramjattan, the setting-up of a bipartisan Parliamentary Committee to be an oversight body of the judiciary is an important and progressive development.

“There is, indeed, a case for such an `outsider ‘watchdog’ to scrutinise the conduct of judges, and hopefully magistrates, so as to ensure an efficient legal system and a properly administered justice system,” he said.

“Judges ought not to find this development offensive (and) they must appreciate that a free, open and legitimate criticism of the performance of their duties will strengthen their performance,” Ramjattan said when contacted Friday by this newspaper for a comment.

Moreover, he said, persons aggrieved by conduct unbecoming of a judge ought to have a forum to complain to, and a body to investigate their allegations.

According to him, a few judges do not write their decisions in a reasoned manner nor within a reasonable time. “This, in my view, constitutes injudicious conduct,” Ramjattan said.

“Where can victims of this kind of conduct have their grievances heard?” he asked.

“In such an Oversight Committee,” he answered himself.

Ramjattan said, too, that the Committee, in his view, must not have any power to sanction. “Simply to put in the public domain the impropriety uncovered is sufficient to compel better standards and performances,” he asserted.

The Judicial Service Commission and the constitutional process should discipline and dismiss the official if circumstances so require, Ramjattan said.

He noted that the public pays the costs of the legal system, the salaries of judges, the expenses of a court infrastructure; and so there is a public interest in the efficiency of the way judges work. “…just like we want efficiency of doctors in our hospitals,” he added.

Ramjattan, however, said the Committee’s terms must be properly delineated so as not to encroach on the independence of the judiciary. Never should it tamper with the security of tenure of judges, or in subtle or overt ways try to influence the way a judge should actually decide a case.

“This must remain a paramount principle of our democracy,” he contended.

Attorney-at-law Trotman, who is a PNC/Reform Parliamentarian, told the ‘Chronicle’ Friday that he “really can’t say what exactly the President meant by a Parliamentary Judicial Oversight Committee”.

According to Trotman, it is “a bit mind-boggling” to hear talk of maybe another Committee being established in Parliament when there are a number of outstanding matters pertaining to the establishment and constitution of the four Sectoral Committees in Parliament.

He said while the idea of a Parliamentary Judicial Oversight Committee is laudable, “promises and ideas should be dealt with when they arise” and “we should deal with the outstanding matters in Parliament first”.

Trotman explained that he was not aware that the judiciary needed a ‘watchdog’ body, although he felt there might be aspects of the judiciary that should be discussed in Parliament such as emoluments for judges.

The work of judges, he felt, should not be subjected to any Parliamentary Oversight Committee. (MARK RAMOTAR)