The pageantry of justice by Vidyanand Persaud
Stabroek News
March 31, 2002

Related Links: Articles on heritage
Letters Menu Archival Menu

The coincidence of Eid-ul-Adha/Republic Day and Phagwah/Good Friday has been well received by those Guyanese who have been lamenting over the loss of productive man-hours resulting from many national holidays - official and spontaneously declared.

The lament will surface again early in this new week. On Tuesday morning most of us who are gainfully employed in Central Georgetown will arrive at work very late and very angry and frustrated.

From early in the morning all the streets within a one-mile radius of the High Court will be closed to vehicular traffic to facilitate the ceremonial opening of the April Criminal Assizes.

Motorists will be diverted by traffic policemen and forced to drive around in circles along congested by-ways until the curtains are drawn on that spectacular masquerade in which the finest of the Guyana Police Force preen themselves before the judges.

Lewis Caroll's Alice was able to identify the judge "because of his great wig." The curious onlookers in Croal Street will be able to identify our judges because of their scarlet robes.

These dispensers of justice clad in their red costumes will be acknowledged by policemen turning out in proper ceremonial dress on foot and on horseback, strutting to the accompaniment of a full brass band.

The show is not over until one of the judges who is perched on a lofty platform accepts the invitation to descend onto lower ground, perambulate along the row of policemen who had "presented arms( and nods to signify his approval for another splendid parade.

justices.jpg - 69kb
The opening of the October 1999 Assizes. (SN file photo)

It's not back to work after that. Viewing a parade is thirsty work and so the judges, the registrar and senior police officers repair to the Chief Justice's Chambers for refreshments (presumably the lesser rank are made of sterner stuff and so do not require such liquid sustenance).

With appropriate crystal, toasts are proposed ad nauseam until the timely intervention of one of the privileged attendees who strives to retain the simile involving judges and sobriety.

There is no rational explanation or justification for this quarterly ceremonial disruption of traffic.

For our lawyers who are steeped in tradition the fact that it is always done that way in the past is justification enough to continue it.

In Guyana, lawyers have a peculiar preoccupation with court dress and instead of getting on with the business of disposing of cases they pounce on litigants who commit the cardinal infraction of allowing a shirt to become unbuttoned, and with Talibanic fervour they eject from the precincts of the court any female foolish enough to attempt to walk the corridor in a sleeveless dress!

Lawyers are permitted to use their own deliberate judgement or discretion except in the case of the more serious business of dress.

Court dress for lawyers themselves is decreed by Practice Directions, which seem to have been drafted by the lady whose disfigured statue stands in the courtyard.

The layman in court will be bemused when counsel, who had been screaming, is informed by the judge: "I cannot hear you!(

This happens from time to time when counsel may inadvertently neglect to drape a black cloth around his shoulder before addressing the court or wear a necktie, which was manufactured any time subsequent to the appointment of Justice Verity to the local bench.

Why do we slavishly retain meaningless relics of our colonial past? The justice system is not a pageant to be admired by onlookers in Croal Street. It is a vital organ in our society to be judged by its ability to speedily do justice between citizen and citizen and citizen and the State.

Judges do not have to wrap themselves in red clothing and collectively listen to military music in order to be recognized. Spectators and lawyers know them without these frills.

And when all this is going on next Tuesday morning there will be some wretched prisoners facing the capital charge incarcerated in the bowels of the courthouse. They will hear the booming, joyous music on the street and will later peer upstairs and see the judge designated to hold the scale evenly between them and the police in company with police officers and perhaps a representative of the DPP's Chambers (but never defence counsel) heading towards pleasant surroundings where they will sip and chat.

The bewildered prisoners, in the manner of the Roman gladiators greeting the emperor, will salute the judge with a resigned, "Morituri...(we who are about to die)..."

Pannick, echoing Trollope, considers that the question uppermost in the minds of suitors and prisoners must be:

"Why are these people who are send me to prison or ruining my business or throwing me out of my house, dressed up for a pantomime and speaking in a foreign language?(

It cannot be that the pantomime is intended to generate dignity and respect. The dignity of the Appeal Court judges is not eroded by the absence of public display of their dress and the magistrates who do not "dress-up" retain dignity and respect (despite Roger!).

Our judges respect the Law Lords sitting in the highest court in England and are persuaded by their decisions. In court, these Law Lords are dressed in ordinary suits and do not wear wigs and gowns.

I recognise that criticism will not result in the desuetude of the ceremonial parade; the retentionists will continue to argue that the tradition encourages the public to respect the judiciary and enhances its dignity.

I have a marvellous suggestion which, if implemented, would eliminate the disruption of traffic and at the same time increase the respect of our judges a thousand fold.

Ironically, the traffic jam resulting from the parade itself deprives many from seeing the judges on show. Among those so disadvantaged are citizens on whom the parade would have a most salubrious effect, such as mini-bus drivers and conductors.

The suggestion therefore is that the parade, which is viewed by a sprinkling outside the High Court be scrapped and that the judges acquire a float and wave (or bow) to the thousands along the route in the Mash Parade.

If, later in the year, it is found that there is some diminution in the groundswell of respect and dignity generated by participation in Mash, the exercise can be done "de novo" (nice lawyers' phrase that). Our judges can once again don their red capes and join the Diwali motorcade.

Of course, suitable compensation will be given to the policemen who are relieved of their ceremonial duties in the parade and reassigned to less important mundane duties such as recapturing escaped prisoners.