Acts of violence and other heinous acts often generate an outcry for what is often described as “justice.”
“We need justice!” is often the admonition. Justice, and the cry for it, is something Guyanese are very familiar with. It is, for example, the title of the late Father Andrew Morrison’s 1998 book entitled “Justice: The struggle for democracy in Guyana.”
“Justice” has also been the cry since the police killing of Shaka Blair in 2002 which was followed by a slew of murders and extra judicial killings.
The needful call for justice continues to ring out daily. It resounds each time a woman is murdered at the hands of her lover, each time a child is sexually assaulted, or each time a business is robbed and criminals caught.
The rise of social media and its ability to bring us information on a timelier basis from over the world has provided a platform for greater national and international exposure to injustice in Guyana.
The justice system comprises a variety of institutions. In the pursuit of justice, critical institutions include the Guyana Police Force, with its investigating capabilities and ranks whom we expect to be the upholders of the laws.
Then, there is the judiciary, an arm of government separate and distinct from the executive. Magistrates’ Courts sit across the country, in each county, Demerara, Berbice and Essequibo, with courts sitting sporadically in Regions 1 and 9. They hear small criminal and civil matters like assaults, theft, preliminary inquiries into murders and matters involving tenants and landlords.
Then, there is the High Court. The High Court is presided over by the Chief Justice and several judges and is where serious matters are heard, including rapes, murders and acts of treason.
“The Law and You” – a public awareness brochure of the Georgetown Legal Aid explains that both the Magistrates’ and High Courts are bolstered by the presence of the Court of Appeal “where both criminal and civil appeals from the High Court and from the Full Court and Magistrates’ Courts are heard”.
The dispensing of justice is dependent on a working legal system, one which is complemented by an efficiently working penal system. In Guyana, there are holding facilities across the country.
A large prison in the capital city, Camp Street Prison, is complemented by holding facilities in Lusignan on East Coast of Demerara and Timehri Prisons in Soesdyke. There are strong criticisms about overcrowding in these facilities – overcrowding that has stemmed from a backlog of cases in the courts.
In addition, there are the Mazaruni Prisons which house persons serving long sentences and the New Amsterdam Prisons for women. Sitting in the cells of at least three of these prisons are more than 40 persons on Death Row.
In the second edition of Insight we set out to examine whether or not the legal and judicial system is working, particularly when it comes to the fair and timely dispensing of justice.
In October, Acting Chancellor of the Judiciary, Carl Singh described the performance of High Court justices as “inadequate” when he spoke at the closing session of the IDB-funded Modernization of the Justice Administration Programme.
“The performance of the judges in the Supreme Court is woefully inadequate and criticism in that regard is justified,” Justice Singh said.
Senior Counsel, Bryn Pollard, when interviewed by Insight, however contended that the system itself is “broken.” This is a sentiment reminiscent of Justice Roxanne George’s call in May 2010 on all stakeholders to help “fix the system.”
Justice George’s famous statement came as a prisoner, Justin John, an Amerindian who was remanded in 2003 for murder appeared before her along with 20 other prisoners requesting an early trial.
That year, in the June Assizes, Justice William Ramlal freed John. His lawyers had argued that John’s constitutional right to a fair trial within a reasonable time was violated since he had been awaiting trial for so many years.
In May 2008, Chief Justice Ian Chang granted bail to Hemchand Persaud who was charged, along with another man, for the 2000 murder of James Sancharran and six year old Afraz Khan. The other man, Rohan Singh was in 2006 sentenced to 36 years in jail while Persaud had a new trial ordered.
Upon the prospect of a fourth preliminary inquiry, Persaud’s lawyer asserted that his client’s fundamental rights had been infringed upon having waited eight years for a trial.
The Chief Justice, citing Article 139 of the Constitution, said there are provisions for bail and ordered that Persaud be granted $200,000 bail on the condition he report to the police station each week.
President of the Guyana Bar Association (GBA) Ronald Burch-Smith has however recognised that the repair work to the system goes beyond the granting of more resources.
“In Demerara,” he said in an interview with Insight, “There are two full time criminal judges, who are rotated in each assizes, There is one in Berbice, one in Essequibo but there are more than 200 indictable matters awaiting trial,” the GBA head said.
“Practically, what happens is that the only trials are done are murder trials, on rare occasions you may have a few of the rapes that are pending that are called up for trial, predominantly murders, because those persons are on remand, but rape is a very serious offence, its prevalent, it’s obviously after murder one of the most serious offences.”
Burch-Smith said that there is an enormous backlog of rape cases, in particular. An Insight check revealed that in the 2012 lists from the Assizes alone there were more than 120 rape matters.
“The hallmark of a working system must be the timely dispensation of justice,” Burch Smith said.
“The problem that is pervasive in our system is that delays affect from the Magistrates’ Court to the Court of Appeal. I find that from the point of view of the public, getting justice, if you file a matter, you have to tell you client not to get excited and they may have to wait up to ten years.”
Managing Attorney of the Guyana Legal Aid Clinic and President of the Guyana Association of Women Lawyers Simone Morris-Ramlall believes the major issue is a shortage of personnel.
“The main problem is having human resources, having judicial personnel, including magistrates,” Morris-Ramlall told Insight.
Morris-Ramlall feels that a better working system with more resources, particularly human resources, could aid with dispensing justice in a timely manner.
Among her recommendations is the need for “tools” physical and otherwise within the system, recording devices to help legal officers, judges and magistrates when taking statements and evidence, research assistants and a rule that makes mandatory, legal education for judicial officers.
Burch Smith however explained that new rules are to be introduced soon.
An IDB Funded Programme towards the Modernisation of the Justice Administration System, which was implemented in 2007, actually attempted to address several issues plaguing the system.
Attorney General Anil Nandlall has pointed to the enactment of a number of new pieces of legislation, the training of legal officers, plans to have court rooms equipped with voice recordings and the digitisation of law reports and court records.
Nandlall is quoted as saying that through the programme there has been the installation of management information and file management systems for the easy transfer of files at the High Court adding that visible infrastructural changes have also been made. The Attorney General feels that the programme is a viable attempt at reforming of the legal and justice sector in a way which will precipitate the speedy delivery of justice.