Time is not on our side
Guyana Chronicle
January 31, 2003

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THE recent lamentations of Chancellor of the Judiciary, Ms Desiree Bernard indicating the imminent collapse of the legal system for the want of more judges and magistrates is yet another indication of the fragile nature of present day Guyana.

The Chancellor noted that whereas the establishment allowed for 21 magistrates there were only 13 or 14 on roll, 11 puisne justices only 7 in a system which, in any case, requires an establishment of some 15 judges to be service effective. Indeed a few years ago a UK Committee declared that, the number of judges in post, and the maximum establishment presently allowed, is not big enough to cope with the volume of work.

We were led to believe that this admonition was heeded and the system corrected. Chancellor Bernard has now disabused our minds of that sorry delusion.

The inability to properly staff the judicial establishment has resulted in inordinate delays and as we all know justice delayed is justice denied.

Justices Lewis and Baker recently instructed that it was fundamental to a free society that it is served by an independent and effective legal system. It is also a fundamental right of every citizen to be fairly treated by the courts in civil and criminal proceedings.

The legal system is not efficient and fairness is not achieved in either field if justice is unduly delayed.

In Guyana, the High Court is comprised of the Chief Justice who presides along with 11 Judges. There are no specialist courts nor are specialist appointments made.

High Court judges are therefore maids of all work and must operate across the full spectrum of the Laws of Guyana. They conduct criminal trials of indictable offences, civil and divorce matters and appeals of magisterial decisions.

To qualify for appointment as a Judge of the High Court, a person is required to be an Attorney-at-Law who has been in practice for an aggregate of at least seven years. Judges are appointed with security of tenure and hold office until the age of 65.

In Guyana, it has long been obvious that the salary, conditions of service and pension rights are insufficiently enticing to attract a competent cadre of jurist to public service in the judiciary. A judicial appointment is supposed to be an honour in recognition of the esteem and success of an attorney.

Unfortunately, bereft of adequate perquisites, it is not a sufficient honour to attract many. And so the sorry state of affairs continues.

In 1998 of 8,094 civil cases listed, only 5,407 were heard while in 1999 of 7,604 listed only 5,948 were heard. In the case of indictable offences in 1998 of 107 cases only 78 were tried and in 1999 of 43 only 24.

The case appears the same in matters before the Court of Appeal where in 1998 of the 147 civil cases listed only 46 were heard and of the 49 only 34. In 1999 of the 84 civil cases list only 67 were heard while of the 43 criminal cases, 41 were heard.

The implications of such a record of deferrals for the expeditious disposition of cases as is required in the judicial system is staggering. Cases filed in 1990 were being heard for the very first time in 1998 and even then deferred for a subsequent date. If justice delayed is justice denied than it is little wonder that the courts do not enjoy the public respect and confidence which they ought to have.

While the absence of a functioning Judicial Service Commission has considerably delayed the appointment of those very few who are willing to serve there are, undoubtedly, a whole host of other factors accounting for this current unhappy state of affairs. Judicial systems are exceedingly traditional in ceremonials, dress, address and function, but here in Guyana the system goes beyond what is traditional; it is archaic.

The disposal system is perhaps the most backward in the region. Here the courts are still governed by the 1955 English Rules of Court but whereas these Rules were consistently reviewed in the UK and indeed were rewritten in entirety in April 1999, Guyana remains stolidly wedded to the Rules of 1955.

Court buildings and basic accommodation are well below the standard required for the efficient execution of the functions of an effective judiciary. They do not provide the tranquil atmosphere and accommodation appropriate for the conduct of judicial business. They are not air-conditioned and, located in Central Georgetown, are surrounded by busy thoroughfares, clogged with traffic and subject to the constant cacophony of city life.

Additionally, there are still no recording equipment for the taking of evidence or for the summing. Adjournments are frequently sought and readily granted. Hearing of civil cases are serialised and judges sit in the Full Courts of Georgetown, New Amsterdam and Essequibo and do civil business at the same time.

Finally, Guyana Law Reports are published much too infrequently so the research component of a Judge's work is rendered that more burdensome and time consuming.

The system can be helped but it will require commitment and the adoption of a number of measures. The Judicial Service Commission must be made to function. More justices should be appointed immediately. The attempts to appoint both Temporary and Part Time Judges should be further explored.

Of course this process will be considerably enabled if the less than attractive salary structure, working conditions and pension rights were correspondingly addressed.

Crime fighting enjoys official priority in our society today. It would be a fitting corollary if Justice were to be accorded kindred consideration.

As Chancellor Bernard so succinctly indicated, time is not on our side.

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