Administration of justice in trouble - Chancellor Bernard
Structure for community service sentencing needed
Stabroek News
April 8, 2002

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The administration of justice in the country is in trouble and the stark reality is that judges and magistrates are endeavouring to do twice or three times the volume of work with half their required number, Chancellor of the Judiciary, Desiree Bernard said.

Meanwhile, some 42% of the prison population is comprised of prisoners on remand and magistrates were advised to consider using other forms of penalty for minor offences such as periods of community service catered for in the statutes. But Bernard said that the problem was that at present there was no structure in place for using this alternative form of sentencing.

In an address during the first session of the Guyana Bar Association (GBA) Law Conference which opened at Le Meridien Pegasus Hotel on Saturday morning, Bernard said that to deal with the issue of sentencing for remand prisoners and using community service as a form of sentencing there now needs to be a list of approved places where community service can be performed as well as adequate arrangements for supervision and security of the prisoners. This, she said, required urgent attention.

Noting that for some time the judiciary has been beset by an increasing backlog of both civil and criminal cases which has proved difficult to reduce due to a shortage of judicial personnel and the inability to attract suitably qualified persons to the judiciary, she said that the High Court and the Magistrate's Courts were functioning with depleted staff in the face of litigation which has increased four-fold over the past ten years.

Because of the ever-increasing backlog of cases which had been a source of concern, particularly during her tenure as Chief Justice, Bernard said that the two committees she established on assuming the office of Chancellor to examine existing laws, practices and procedures of the criminal justice system, to undertake a review of the existing rules of the high court and to formulate new rules of civil jurisprudence have been working with support provided by the Carter Center.

The criminal justice committee is to submit an interim report shortly and it is expected that it will reveal statistics from the Director of Prisons concerning the prison population and the large number of persons on remand, she said.

Noting that an alarming 42% of the prison population comprised prisoners on remand, she said that steps have to be taken to reduce this number. Persons are remanded for short periods of time before trial; because they cannot raise bail fixed by magistrates and because they are awaiting fixture of their cases by the Director of Public Prosecutions in the High Court.

In dealing with prisoners who cannot raise the bail which has been fixed, Bernard suggested that their hearing be expedited and decisions need to be taken by the police and the DPP about further prosecution if witnesses cannot be found or are unwilling to continue the prosecution.

In relation to those awaiting trial in the High Court, due to the unavailability of a sufficient number of judges who can be assigned to criminal assizes, she said there was an urgent need to appoint more judges.

The complement of judges should be ten but there were only seven at present, two of whom are assigned to hear civil and criminal cases in Berbice, one for Bail Court and Chamber matters in Demerara leaving just three with the Chief Justice to hear civil and criminal cases.

While an amendment to the Constitution was passed in June 2001 permitting the appointment of part-time judges drawn from the Bar who may be willing to hear cases without giving up their lucrative practices, she said that the conditions of such judges still need to be fixed by parliament, and this has not been done.

It is hoped that this can be resolved as it has inhibited the recruitment of persons to serve on the judiciary.

With regard to the Civil Procedure Rules, she said that Guyana would be left behind the rest of the Caribbean if it was not brought in line with the rest of the region. The Eastern Caribbean and Trinidad already have new rules in place and revision exercises were taking place in Barbados and Jamaica. Changes must be made to the rules if Guyana intends to be part of the proposed Caribbean Court of Justice.

It is desirable that there should be some uniformity of the rules of procedure in the region while still maintaining individual identity, she said. (Miranda La Rose)