high court yard

Access to Justice -The Critical Difference

The second issue of Insight featured main stories on the Justice System in Guyana, here’s a look at one of the pieces on access to the legal system.

(by Melinda Janki, LLB, BCL (Oxon), LLM, attorney-at-law)

When you take a step into the halls of the High Court it feels as if you have taken a step into the past. The old and elegant wooden structure is a stark contrast to the crass American-style concrete buildings that disfigure Georgetown’s once elegant skyline. Lawyers hurry past, dressed in the austere, long black gowns that English barristers adopted in 1714 when they went into mourning for Queen Anne. The archaic language and esoteric court proceedings are rooted in previous centuries. What does any of this have to do with law, justice and the bewildered citizen?

One of the first things you learn as a law student is that law and justice are not always the same. Justice requires citizens to respect each other equally as human beings, with dignity. Without that respect, justice disappears, and the law becomes oppressive. Segregation – tantamount to an American version of apartheid – was lawful in the United States of America for decades despite its cruel injustice to African-Americans.

Even when rights are legally recognised, they will not mean much, unless the citizen can get redress when those rights are violated. Access to justice only exists if every citizen can go before an impartial judge and know that s/he will get a fair hearing and a reasoned decision.

This system of access to justice depends almost entirely on the legal profession. It is the lawyers who present the arguments in court. It is the lawyers who will become judges. The quality of the judicial process depends completely on the quality of the individuals who make up the legal profession, an entity defined by Lord Templeman, (in a case before the House of Lords), as “an organisation which controls entry and membership, provides educational and training qualifications, insists upon a standard of work and behaviour, imposes disciplinary sanctions for misconduct and, above all, acknowledges and enforces a duty to the public over and above the duty common to all of obeying the law.

“Profession” does not indicate greater status in society. “Profession” demands higher standards of behaviour and greater responsibility towards the public. The men and women in their outdated costumes are what stand between the ordinary citizen and the abuse of power by the State. If lawyers do their job well, executive abuse becomes unthinkable. If lawyers abandon their responsibility then society begins to crumble. The rule of law, not the arbitrary rule of men, is what creates civilised societies and stops them from sliding back into the dark ages. An attorney who does not respect the rule of law is not fit to practice.

The importance of the rule of law is reflected in the rules of the Guyana Bar Association which state that one of the Association’s objectives is “to uphold the rule of law.” But lawyers cannot do it alone. The public must believe in the rule of law and enforce the limits on State power. This is immediately problematic.

Lawyers cost money. Legal aid is currently inadequate for the needs of the poor and pro bono legal representation cannot cover the gap. Justice delayed is also justice denied. When you get to court, cases drag on. Some judges take too long to give their decisions or do not give them at all. When lawyers let things drift, the client suffers.

Access to justice also depends on persons knowing their rights. A constitution is a useless bit of paper unless people know how to use it. The legal profession has a duty to educate the public on their rights and on the importance of the rule of law.

A passion for justice, duty to the public, integrity and a sense of honour distinguish the true lawyer from the mere jobbing attorney, hanging about for money, power or status. As Charles Houston, the African-American attorney said: “A lawyer is either a social engineer or a parasite on society”.



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