Law Week, sponsored by the Guyana Bar Association (GBA), is yet another innovative and imaginative effort by the legal profession to highlight and promote the importance of law and a law-based society in Guyana. Law Week commenced with the ceremonial opening of the April Assizes which involved for the first time a procession of Judges and lawyers behind the Disciplined Forces Parade. This was followed by speeches by the President of the GBA, Ms. Pauline Chase, the Chancellor (ag), The Hon. Yonette Cummings-Edwards, the Chief Justice (ag), The Hon. Roxane George-Wiltshire and the Attorney General, The Hon. Mohabir Anil Nandlall.
Ms. Pauline Chase boldly advocated that the Assizes which, in Guyana, are quarterly criminal sessions, be abolished altogether, the effect of which would render unnecessary the ceremonial parade at which Ms. Chase was speaking. For some, the quarterly ceremonial parade is an archaic symbol of our colonial past. For others, it is a reminder of the importance of the rule of law, notwithstanding its origin. However, many others point to the colourful, noisily musical renditions and celebratory atmosphere as worthy of being retained. Few consider that the south-western half of downtown Georgetown is closed to traffic for hours and no one who owns a motor car can penetrate the cordon of unfriendly policemen to get to work in that area.
Ms. Chase called for a new formula for the appointment to the posts of Chancellor and Chief Justice. In previous articles I pointed out that the Constitutional Reform Commission (CRC) had proposed a ‘consensual mechanism’ for the appointments, as opposed to ‘meaningful consultation’ for all other constitutional offices for which consultation was provided by the Constitution. The intention was not for agreement between the President and Opposition Leader. If such had been the case, the CRC would have said so. The intention was to have a formula that was of a higher level than ‘meaningful consultation;’ for a genuine search for agreement between the President and Leader of the Opposition.
The CRC was constrained by a time frame and was forced to leave the formula to be agreed by political parties in negotiation. In the parliamentary committee which drafted the proposed reforms, the Oversight Committee, PPP representatives astonishingly agreed to this gridlock formula. The parliamentary committee did not include senior members of the CRC, like myself, who refused further participation in the constitutional reform process because of the intense internal PPP hostility hurled our way, during deliberations of the CRC, for allegedly ‘selling out’ to the PNC. The Oversight Committee and the members of the PPP delegation, therefore, did not have the benefit of the full extent of the intention of the CRC in relation to a ‘consensual mechanism.’ The PPP representatives showed a serious lack of political judgment in consenting to the proposal for agreement. In casual acceptance of their own authority and infallibility, they did not seek a postponement of the decision in order to consult with their Party leadership. They plunged headlong in and accepted the PNC’s proposals for agreement. At the time, the monumental error went above the heads of the PPP leadership.
I spoke privately to the leading PPP representative about the enormity of the blunder. He sought to walk it back with the leadership of the PNC delegation but, of course, with such a concession in hand, they refused to budge. Guyana’s politics will now never allow the formula to be changed. No matter how destructive ‘consensual mechanism’ is for the independence of the judiciary, as was pointed out some years ago by President of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), Sir Dennis Byron, in an address to an Annual Bar Dinner, like the 3-3-1 formula for the Elections Commission, it is embedded in the concrete that is our present political environment.
The two most important events in the history of the Judiciary in Guyana are the abolition of appeals to the Privy Council in 1970 and accession to the Caribbean Court of Justice in 2005 as Guyana’s final court of appeal. The first event signaled the end of what existed of Guyana’s judicial independence and its potential for growth. The second event signaled the restoration of the prospect for Guyana’s judicial independence. By the time this article is published, the Annual Bar Dinner would have been addressed for the second time by a President of the CCJ, the Hon. Justice Adrian Saunders. Justice Saunders will no doubt want to address the importance of Guyana’s accession to the appellate jurisdiction of the CCJ, its contribution to that branch of the court’s work and call for other Caribbean countries to join.
While Justice Saunders could potentially address the Guyana’s recent cases to the CCJ surrounding elections issues, he is unlikely to do so because of their political sensitivity. But hopefully Justice Saunders will say enough for us to understand and be cognizant of the vast importance of the CCJ in upholding constitutional rule in Guyana and the Caribbean and, in doing so, protecting the rule of law and democracy. This decisions of the CCJ upholding the two-term presidential limit, rejecting 34 as the majority of 65, and refusing to import additional layers of meaning to what is a ‘valid vote,’ have impacted Guyana’s present and future like no other events.