Magistrates blamed for recent jailbreak By Abigail Butler
Guyana Chronicle
March 10, 2002

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`Most of those escapees are persons awaiting trial. The blame has to be laid squarely at our door because the Police can ask for an adjournment (and) it is up to us to grant it' - Chancellor Desiree Bernard

CHANCELLOR of the Judiciary, Ms. Desiree Bernard yesterday expressed concern about the large numbers of prisoners on remand at the Georgetown Prison and said magistrates should take the blame for the recent jailbreak.

" doubt that is what motivated the recent jailbreak. Most of those escapees are persons awaiting trial. The blame has to be laid squarely at our door because the Police can ask for an adjournment (and) it is up to us to grant it", she told a Magistrates' Conference at the Hotel Tower in Georgetown.

The Chancellor said she has received an interim report from the committee she established to look into the criminal justice system, which reveals that of the 831 prisoners in the Georgetown jail, at least 41% are on remand.

"That is a staggering revelation and it means that nearly half of the prisoners of the Georgetown Prison are on remand without trial and I could think of nothing more staggering in the administration of justice than that", she declared.

Of those who fled in the well-executed Mash Day jailbreak, Dale Moore and Andrew Douglas were on remand after being charged with a series of murders and robberies under arms, and Troy Dick, for murder.

In their escape, the gang killed one Prison Officer and shot another who is in critical condition at the Georgetown Hospital.

Chancellor Bernard yesterday advised the magistrates to grant Police Prosecutors one or two adjournments if asked for and to set firm dates for hearings.

Expressing alarm at persons being remanded for about four years, she noted, "...something has to be wrong".

"Can that be justice? That a man is on remand for four years without a trial when the presumption of innocence is what we are guided by? Why must this be so? Something has to be wrong if half the prison population is incarcerated without trial."

She said she intends to get together with Chief Justice Carl Singh to examine the matter. " has touched me deeply and I think we need to do something about it immediately."

The Chancellor said she found out that in some instances accused placed on bail cannot meet the specified sum while others are simply not granted bail. She said in these cases the matters should be brought up and heard.

"...if the fault lies with the Police then they will have to get their act together but they cannot go on asking for adjournments repeatedly for years without bringing these persons to trail", she stated.

"I think we tend to pander quite a lot to the public perception of what justice is and the public perception in most cases is 'jail them and throw away the key'. That has its limitations.

"If we had large facilities where the jail can accommodate everybody it will be something else but we are operating in a system where it is not possible...", she said.

Ms. Bernard is hoping that the committee will recommend a proper system be put in place for community service instead of having magistrates jailing a man accused of stealing mangoes off a tree.

"I urge you to have a look again at this whole question of remand. It is not working and it has to be changed...", she said, advising the magistrates to set firm dates for trial whenever persons are remanded.

She also used the opportunity, while addressing the magistrates at the opening ceremony of the conference yesterday, to express her concerns about the magistracy currently being under public scrutiny.

She noted that the magistracy and the wider judiciary have come under the microscope in a very unflattering manner.

"This is of grave concern to me personally. Comments about judges or magistrates reflect on all of us as a whole. We are seen as not living up to the delivery of justice according to the public perception of what that should be", she stated.

Referring to allegations made about corruption in the magistracy and even in the higher judiciary, Chancellor Bernard urged the magistrates to check their conduct since they are being looked at.

"In former times, one did not find the need to tell persons who hold such offices how to behave and it is becoming increasingly necessary for us to do this and we have to learn to discipline ourselves", she stated.

She said one has to realise that when he/she undertakes the important position as a judge or a magistrate he/she has to make personal sacrifices. "Hence going into public bars and having drinks with your friends is a sacrifice you will have to make because members of the public do not want persons who have to try their cases to be seen imbibing publicly.

"People are quick to come to conclusions and it is an occupational hazard. We should try to avoid such allegations as much as possible. Nobody is saying you must live like a hermit but it calls for restrictions in your personal life...if you have to entertain friends do it in a respectable place of entertainment", she cautioned.

Head of the Presidential Secretariat, Dr. Roger Luncheon last month said many ordinary Guyanese have been drawing to the Government's attention, and to the attention of the Chancellor, Chief Justice and the Judicial Service Commission, "the irregular, unlawful and corrupt practices of magistrates all over the length and breadth of this country..."

He had stated, to the disapproval of some sections of society, that "in the magistracy, corrupt practices have been uncovered and over and over, these have been brought to public attention".

A joint investigative team has been launched to probe the allegations.

The Chancellor also advised magistrates yesterday to avoid hearing cases that involve close friends or relatives since they may not be able to operate at a level of objectivity if relatives or friends are appearing before them.

"Matters are to be decided in court according to law, not according to friendship...You must take pride in the job that you have and inflict on yourself certain codes which you are supposed to abide by and never let your name be scandalised in relation to things that are not right", she advised.

She noted that the duties of magistrates are onerous but urged them to bear in mind that their role in the administration of justice is extremely important, and calls for discipline, impartiality, and diligence.

Magistrates were further advised to work all day once cases are to be heard.

Ms. Bernard, however, noted that the work of magistrates does not only involve hearing cases and they have work to do in the chambers. She advised that they be within the precinct of the court during working hours.

She said one of the allegations made is that magistrates go on the Bench late and leave early denying persons the right to be heard.

" are being paid to be there at a certain time and you should be. I have always said if one cannot abide with the rules of the job then don't take it, but if you take it, you must be prepared to abide by the rules and be committed.

"Show dedication and commitment to whatever you do", she urged as she referred to the recent increase in the salaries which she said they should justify.

The Chancellor said she has also received complaints about the attitude of magistrates towards members of the public.

Noting that in many instances she has to smooth things over for the magistrates, she urged, "always be polite. It takes nothing off out of you. Keep a calm head and avoid making unnecessary statements...we need positive portrayal".

She added that prompt delivery of justice is another shortcoming to be dealt with. "We provide a service whether we appreciate this or not and if we provide a service we must do so diligently".

Magistrates were left with other words of encouragement as Ms. Bernard expressed hope that they leave at the end of the day with a firm resolve to make the administration of justice better and richer.

"You have an important function to perform. You are the pillars of justice. Years gone by I heard that magistrates were persons of great importance in a district. People looked up to the magistrates. Let us bring back that era...", she urged.

The conference was sponsored by the Carter Center.