Govts must provide adequate access to justice - Maharaj

Plugs public interest litigation
Stabroek News
April 11, 2002

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Governments must ensure adequate access to justice through institutions so that citizens can enjoy their human rights, former Attorney-General of Trinidad and Tobago, Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, SC, has said.

Maharaj made the statement during his address last Sunday at the final session of the two-day Guyana Bar Association (GBA) Law Conference on 'The Effective Enforcement of Fundamental Rights in the Commonwealth Caribbean' at Le Meridien Pegasus Hotel.

Maharaj pointed out that in order for this to be achieved, existing laws should be reformed so that the necessary institutions and legal infrastructure could be put in place. He said that governments should improve legal aid programmes so that persons who felt aggrieved about the violation of their rights could have legal representation to assist them in vindicating their claims.

"Governments... have a duty to repeal existing laws which obstruct the effective enforcement of human and fundamental rights. Laws must not only speak human rights but they must deliver human rights," Maharaj said.

Maharaj related how through the formation of an Equal Opportunities Commission and an Equal Opportunities Tribunal in his homeland during his tenure as attorney-general (AG), individuals are now able to obtain legal services without cost. Additionally, the commission has the authority to investigate complaints of unequal treatment and to mediate in an effort to resolve differences between aggrieved persons. If the matter is unresolved, then the commission has the power to take the matter before the tribunal, which has the power of the High Court to grant redress.

He said that despite the guarantee provided in the Trinidadian constitution for the right to freedom of thought and expression and the freedom of the press, these rights could not have been properly enjoyed. However, this situation was reversed after a Freedom of Information Act was enacted, which gave individuals a statutory right to government-held information.

The former AG, who was at the centre of a blistering political row last year with UNC leader Basdeo Panday and formed his own party to contest the recent elections, noted that since access to justice was important, the endurance of political democracy was dependent on social democracy that recognised liberty, equality and justice. He added that the role of the media in protecting human and fundamental freedoms was an important one, and that its members possessed the right to criticise the judgements of the courts and the administration of justice if it was warranted. "The media have a duty to assist in creating public awareness of the importance of human rights," he contended.

"The legal profession must be conscious of its social responsibilities and must be keenly aware of its need to mould the law, creatively and imaginatively, in the service of the weaker sections of humanity."

Maharaj challenged the lawyers to mobilise social and economic power for deprived sections of the society through legal institutions and the judicial process. He opined that new strategies must be developed in order to bring socio-economic justice within closer reach of the vulnerable sections of the communities. "Public interest litigation is assuming great importance... This is an important tool which lawyers can use to assist non-governmental bodies and public-spirited individuals to approach the courts in order to get redress for the violation of the fundamental rights of the economically marginalised, the have-nots, the lowly, the lost and the poor who are left out of the justice system," Maharaj concluded. (Edlyn Benfield)