The rule of law
June 17, 2003
Last week there was a disturbing letter from attorney-at-law Mohabir Nandlall describing a number of incidents he had witnessed or been involved in which indicated that the rule of law was under direct threat.
Mr Nandlall first testified that the prosecutors and on occasions the magistrate in a recently concluded preliminary inquiry into a capital charge of treason were, on an almost daily basis, subjected to profane and racial verbal abuses and sometimes physical abuse by persons in the precincts of the court and sometimes even during the hearing of the case. They also, he said, received death threats on a regular basis.
Mr Nandlall continued that a bail petition was subsequently filed in the high court and the abuses and threats continued. When bail was refused, the judge’s decision was met with even worse abuse, in the face of the court. The Chief Justice, he reported, who attempted to intervene, was subjected to similarly vile conduct. The conduct was so obnoxious and threatening that the high court adjourned all cases fixed for hearing that day.
Mr Nandlall also said that a judge recently aborted a criminal trial at the assizes because of a disagreement with defence counsel. For three days thereafter, persons protested against the judge’s decision in front of the high court, chanting statements ridiculing the judge and carrying offensive pickets. As Mr Nandlall noted, in most countries such persons would have been called before the judge to show cause why they should not have been committed for contempt.
Finally, he said that a substantial number of orders of court were not being obeyed.
There are serious indictments that should not be taken lightly by the judiciary or the Guyana Bar Association. Indeed, one would hope that the new executive of the Bar Association would put this at the top of their agenda. As Mr Nandlall noted in his letter, the rule of law is the basis of our democratic civilisation and the open society we seek to maintain.
The assumption on which the rule of law is based is that judges will make decisions on cases before them based only on the evidence and the law, without fear or favour, regardless of the person before them. If judges can be pressurised or threatened by aggressive public protests or other forms of direct intimidation the whole edifice will shake and the public order and civil liberties we take for granted will be in jeopardy.
The rule of law is not a blessing that comes from on high, it has to be continually fought for and protected by those who genuinely believe in it, not only when their party is out of power, and at the same time recognise how fragile it is. The Bar Association should discuss with the Chancellor, the Chief Justice and the police methods of dealing with such problems in future. Lawyers who pander to or encourage such practices should also be called upon to give an explanation of their conduct which is not at all in keeping with that expected from officers of the court.