Legal system will collapse without more judges, magistrates -Chancellor
Stabroek News
January 19, 2003

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There are not enough judges and magistrates to deal with the growing number of cases that have to be heard, and unless the emoluments are at a level to attract applicants from the private bar the legal system will collapse.

This is the warning being sounded by Chancellor of the Judiciary Desiree Bernard, who last week at a special Sitting of the Full Court said that the justice system was in imminent danger of collapse.

In an interview with the Stabroek News, the Chancellor pointed out that both the judiciary and the magistracy were considerably below strength. She said that in an establishment which called for 21 magistrates there were at present about 13 or 14, and where it called for 11 puisne judges and a chief justice there were just 7 seven puisne judges and the chief justice.

She observed that it would need an increased complement of about 15 judges to deal adequately with the number of cases coming before the courts, since cases were coming at a faster rate than they were being disposed of.

The Chancellor said that the key to being able to recruit more judges and magistrates was the level of emoluments offered. These had to constitute a sufficient inducement to attract experienced attorneys from the private bar.

To try to address the present situation, Chancellor Bernard said that she and the Chief Justice were doing everything possible to keep the system going, but they didn't know how much longer they would be able to do so. "I always make the point [that] lawyers have options, and the magistrates and judges will just one day say they have had enough and they are going either back to private practice or to find employment elsewhere."

The Chancellor explained that she and the Chief Justice had had to persuade some magistrates, "to forego some of their leave... moving people around and imploring them to undertake more than they normally do." She wondered if the public really appreciated that it was not at all easy to recruit people in the current circumstances.

Judicial Service Commission
She said that key the to addressing the problem was the appointment of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC), which was one of the casualties of the continuing impasse between the parliamentary political parties. In her address to the Full Court sitting, Chancellor Bernard urged the need for the parties to find a solution to the impasse; "Time is not on our side," she said.

The delay in dealing with applications to fill vacancies, some of which had come from overseas, had resulted in some being withdrawn as applicants had taken up other offers.

She noted, too, that it was also not possible to deal with the appointment of part-time judges, even though the constitution had been amended to allow for such appointments. The Chancellor explained that Parliament still had to approve their terms and conditions of service.

If the JSC had been functioning, then it would have been possible to appoint a number of legal practitioners who were willing to serve on a part-time basis. However, she emphasised that the need was not for part-time judges, but for persons committed to serving on a full-time basis.

Lay magistrates
Bernard said that the appointment of lay magistrates was another initiative which would address the minor cases.

She noted that the required legislation had been enacted to allow their appointment but they would still need to be exposed to some training about issues such as the admissibility of evidence.

A hurdle, she said, was the need for the panel of lay magistrates to be advised by lawyers, and unless the emoluments were attractive it would be difficult to recruit these.

Another initiative which was being recommended by the McKay Committee on Criminal Procedure was the abolition of the Preliminary Inquiry. But the Chancellor stated that this would require, among other things, sufficient judges to be available to hear the cases in good time; proper statements being taken by the police; and the prompt preparation of depositions.

In relation to the latter, Bernard said that the magistrates' courts had been included in the computerization project being undertaken by the Carter Center and USAID. With computers available, the preparation of depositions could be speeded up. In addition, the provision of computers to the judges would facilitate the research they have to do.

Another initiative to help reduce the backlog of criminal cases was an exercise by the Chambers of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to identify from the backlog those cases which could not be proceeded with as a result of the complainants or witnesses not being available.

She said, too, that she had been able to facilitate a meeting between the Chamber of the Director of Public Prosecutions and the police, which should expedite the disposition of cases by speeding up the process by which the DPP's chambers tenders advice.

Rules of Court
On the civil side, the Chancellor said that she was aware of an initiative by Chief Justice Carl Singh in co-operation with the Guyana Bar Association and the Registrar of the Supreme Court to weed out cases which were dead, so as to have a realistic assessment of the number of cases that were waiting to be heard.

About the implementation of the recommendations made by the British judges who visited Guyana as part of the assistance being offered by the United Kingdom government project, Bernard referred to need for the Rules of the Court to be amended if some of these were to be implemented. However, she said that it would possibly be the end of year before they were approved.

She explained that at her request former Chancellor of the Judiciary, Kenneth George, had prepared a draft of the new rules that had been circulated to the Rules Committee, the statutory body authorised to amend the rules. Once approved by the committee, the draft would then be discussed with the Bar Association and the judiciary before being placed before the National Assembly by the Attorney General for approval.

When approved the Chancellor said that Guyana's rules would be in line with those in the other Caribbean countries. She said that the East Caribbean Court had already instituted new rules, and that Barbados and Jamaica were presently engaged in a similar exercise.

About the delay in dealing with constitutional motions, which now take up a considerable amount of the court's time, Chancellor Bernard explained that if there were enough judges, one of them in rotation could be assigned to hear these motions. As a result of being unable to do this, she said that they now took longer than they should to be disposed of.

She also laid some of blame for the inordinate number of adjournments at the feet of judges, whom she has been urging to be less kind and polite in the exercise of their judicial discretion.

About the possibility of making more use of the Alternative Dispute Resolution mechanism, the Chancellor said that this required a public education programme, first for the lawyers and then for the public so as to foster the culture conducive to its use.

Another recommendation made by the UK judges was training for the judges. She said that three had already been exposed to training in the United Kingdom organised by the Judicial Studies Board and another was to leave next month. She said that she had already written Baroness Patricia Scotland through whose offices the training had been facilitated exploring the possibility for additional places being made available later this year.

She said, too, that as a result of assistance from the British and Canadian governments, the libraries at the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal were reasonably stocked.

About the provision of law reports, Bernard pointed out that the reports for 1975 and 1976 had been published last year. She said, too, that an overseas publishing company would be assisting with the printing and publishing of reports from 1977, explaining in some instances, that some of the years would be combined where there were not many cases to report. Former Chancellor Aubrey Bishop in collaboration with the Lions and Rotary organisations was overseeing this project. As a result, Chancellor Bernard said a number of reports were likely to be published this year.

Inadequate buildings
Chancellor Bernard bemoaned the conditions under which the High Court judges worked and the poor quality of the support staff available to them. She said that while there had been some improvements in the physical structure, the buildings were more than a hundred years old and had been built to accommodate about four or five judges at a time when the society was less litigious.

She said too that in the near future a Code of Conduct for all Judges, would be instituted and once the code had been approved, it would be published so that the public could be aware of the standard of behaviour required of members of the judiciary. It would be made available to the new appointees at the time of their appointment.

She said that Guyana would be the first country in the Caribbean to institute a Code of Conduct. It had been patterned after a model one drafted by the Commonwealth Secretariat and covered areas such as accountability, demeanour, integrity and propriety.

Where staffing was concerned, Bernard bemoaned the fact that the intellectual level was sometimes not of the desired standard for the functions which had to be performed, and that the necessary language skills were sometimes lacking.

She yearned for the days when judges could have signed orders prepared by their registrars, secure in the knowledge that they were well prepared and accurate.

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