Chancellor urges magistrates to deal with remand case backlog - 41 per cent of Camp Street prisoners on remand
Stabroek News
March 10, 2002

Related Links: Articles on the judiciary
Letters Menu Archival Menu

Chancellor of the Judiciary Desiree Bernard urged magistrates to deal with the backlog of cases involving remand prisoners, and to look at sentencing policy again in the light of the overcrowding in the nation's prisons, when she addressed the magistracy yesterday at a seminar sponsored by the local Carter Center at the Hotel Tower.

Stabroek News after the conference at which papers on Sentencing and Pre-Trail Bail and Forfeiture of Conveyance under the 1988 Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (Control) Act were presented, Chief Justice Carl Singh said that the magistrates through their representatives at the end of the conference had promised to ensure the prompt delivery of justice. The Chief Justice described the papers, which were delivered by Justice Yonette Cummings-Edwards and Justice of Appeal Ian Chang, respectively as well researched, informative and stimulating.

But the Chancellor of the Judiciary set the tone for the conference when she urged the magistrates to mount an attack on the backlog of cases involving persons on remand and to re-think the imposition of custodial sentences in the light of the overcrowding in the country's prisons.

She also urged them to discipline themselves since as magistrates they were no longer free to do as they would wish, since they were always under public scrutiny. She urged them to behave in a manner which would ensure they could be accorded the respect given to the magistrates of an earlier era.

Chancellor Bernard's remarks were made against a background of a report she had seen that said that 41 per cent of the 831 prison population of the Georgetown jail was on remand and that the majority of the other prisoners were serving sentences of one to six months. She told the magistrates that they needed to look again "at this whole question of remand. It is not working and it has to change."

The figures on the prison population, according to the Chancellor, were included in a preliminary report from the committee headed by Rex McKay to review the Criminal Justice Procedures.

The Chancellor told the magistrates that she could think of nothing more staggering to the administration of justice than the large amount of persons on remand without trial and that this could have been the motivation for the recent escape from prison as most of those who escaped were awaiting trial. "The matters have to be brought up for whatever reason. If the fault lies with the police, they have to get their act together."

She said that they "cannot go on asking repeatedly for adjournment for years without bringing these persons to trial...

"The blame has to be laid squarely at our door as the police can ask for the adjournment [but] it is for us to grant it. And if the justice in the case demands that we don't grant it, we don't, and we go ahead and hear the matter."

The Chancellor asserted that cases where no bail was set or the bail could not be met should be heard and recommended that where adjournments were requested by the police and granted, firm dates should be set for proceeding with them whether or not the police were ready.

She stressed that both the police and the lawyers had to be held accountable.

Commenting on the numbers of persons imprisoned for between one to six months when the prisons were "bursting at the seams," Chancellor Bernard observed that something had to be wrong with that. "I think that we tend to pander quite a lot to the public's perception of what justice is and the public perception in most cases is jail them [and] throw away the key". That, she observed, had its limitations and required large facilities that could accommodate all those whom the public felt should be incarcerated.

But she told them that they were operating in a system where that was not possible and one of the recommendations she was hoping to get from the committee was the establishment of a proper system for community service where small offenders could be made to perform community service. However, until such time as that became possible, they would have to deal with the situation as they saw it.

She cautioned nevertheless, that sending a man to jail for stealing mangoes off a tree as a deterrent to others imposed a burden on the prison system, as a space had to be found to accommodate him during his term of imprisonment.

"Therefore we need to look at that a second time and be able to have a feel for what sentence should be custodial and what ought not to be."

Commenting on the need for discipline, diligence and commitment in the execution of their duties, the Chancellor noted that the magistrates must be prepared to make the personal sacrifice of not being able to do as they would like. This meant that they could not be seen to be going into public bars and would have to exercise great care as to where they chose to entertain their friends.

She admonished them that in their relationship with their friends they needed to set very clear parameters within which the relationship would exist, cautioning them about the need to recuse themselves from cases in which their friends or relatives of their friends were involved in order to preserve their integrity.

She stressed that being diligent meant being punctual and being seen to put in a fair day's work. She said that the workload for any particular day might not need them to be sitting on the bench all day, but she said that there were always memoranda of reasons for their decisions to be written. She said that the magistrates' failure to write these memoranda slowed down the work of the Full Court, as those appeals could not be heard. She urged them to develop the habit of writing their memoranda of reasoning and interpretation of the law so gearing themselves for the transfer to the judiciary.

She said that the recent pay increases had increased expectations that they would work harder.

Chancellor Bernard also drew the attention of the magistrates to the manner in which they related to the people who appeared before them, urging them always to keep calm and to deal with the matters before them dispassionately.

She had always reminded them that they were delivering a service and as a result needed to deliver their decisions in a timely manner.

Other presentations on the programme were a report on the Magistracy by Chief Magistrate (ag) Juliet Holder-Allen that dealt with the inadequacies and constraints faced by the magistracy and a Draft Code of Judicial Conduct. With regard to the latter, Chancellor Bernard said that the magistrates' inputs were needed and that it was hoped it would be introduced shortly. There was also a discussion on Guyana Human Rights Association issues.

The seminar, according to the Chief Justice in his opening remarks, was the first in a series of activities in a programme of continuing legal education for members of the judiciary and magistracy. He was loud in his praise of the Carter Center for its sponsorship of yesterday's programme. Scheduled as the next phase in the programme are lectures beginning later this month by academics from Guyana and the wider Caribbean and local judges expert in their fields.