I congratulate the ten Judges who have been appointed and wish them well in the discharge of their important duties. They are: Mrs. Zamina Ally-Seepaul, Mrs. Priscilla Chandra-Haniff, Mr. Peter Hugh, Mrs. Sherdel Isaacs-Marcus, Mrs. Jacqueline Josiah-Graham, Mrs. Deborah Kumar-Chetty, Mr. Nigel Niles, Mrs. Joy Persaud-Singh, Ms. Nicole Pierre and Ms. Hesaun Yasin. These are all young judges who, in various capacities as lawyers, have been at the top of their game for some time.

Constitutional theory recognizes the judiciary as one of three limbs of Guyana’s democratic system. The judges, who comprise the judiciary are, in a fundamental sense therefore, one of the guardians of our democracy. As part of their functions to guard and promote that democracy, judges dispense justice between citizen and citizen (in civil cases) and between the State and the citizen (criminal cases), adjudicate civil, constitutional and public law disputes between the citizen and the State, including public authorities, and interpret legislation passed by Parliament.

The State, represented by the Government as another part of the trio, of which the legislature is the third, also has a constitutional mandate to promote and protect democracy. Since the interests of the Judiciary and the State coincide in this regard, they ought to be mutually supportive of the interests of each other. This is not always so. Governments generally hope that the judiciary would support its policies and when it does not, contradictions sometimes arise. This is manifested in Guyana, far less than in the US, in occasional criticisms of judges’ decisions. While judges must expect that their decisions will be subject to rigorous public scrutiny, the government must know that if a judge is wrong, an appeal to the Court of Appeal will soon apply a corrective remedy. And if the Court of Appeal is wrong, there is the CCJ.

After a long wait the public will now look forward to an optimally functioning judiciary which can address their causes expeditiously and, hopefully, competently. Most importantly, it will allow judges the time to read and research so that their decisions are firmly based in fact and law. The decisions of first instance Judges are frequently examined by higher courts. Neither the Court of Appeal nor the CCJ usually comment on the quality of a decision by a lower court, but if it is lacking, this will certainly be clear from the decisions of the appellate courts. If a Judge cares about the quality of the justice that he or she dispenses, or his or her reputation, he or she will ensure that his or her decision is of the highest quality, firmly founded in legal principles, and given promptly. As regards promptness of decisions, this has been a problem for decades. It resulted in The Time Limit for Judicial Decisions Act passed in 2009 requiring decisions of judges to be given in six weeks. The CCJ ruled earlier last week in Gaskin v Minister of Natural Resources that the six-week time limit is discretionary and not mandatory. The six-week time limit, long imposed for magistrates, was held in 1975 in Reece v Abdulla to be directory and not mandatory. While, therefore, these timelines are little more than guidelines, they are not expected to be violated except for good reason.

The long-awaited appointments have snatched the judiciary from the brink of collapse where it has stood poised for a very long time. The frustration which this has long generated boiled over recently by the unusually frank remarks of Chief Justice Roxane George-Wiltshire. Her Honour complained to the Attorney General, the Hon Anil Nandlall, that the expectation of decisions by Judges within a certain timeframe prescribed by law, with a High Court depleted of judges, was wholly unreasonable. The Attorney General retorted that it is expected that laws are to be observed. The Chief Justice who attracts enormous sympathy and support from the legal profession for uncomplainingly mastering a gargantuan workload in order to keep the High Court functioning, will be able to pull back the High Court from the brink with ten more judges.

Courtesy ought to define the relations between Bench and Bar, Bench and litigants and lawyers and witnesses. The Bench holds the larger responsibility in fostering an atmosphere conducive to the dispensing of justice. Most litigants are nervous and fearful. In order for them to give their evidence fully and frankly so that all the material is before the judge to enable him or her to render a fair decision, the litigant and witnesses have to be made to feel that they are in a hospitable and unintimidating environment. The judge must be patient, courteous, welcoming and reassuring. Judges must also protect witnesses or even litigants against lawyers who are hostile and insulting. Both litigants and witnesses are entitled to respect and courtesy which will enable them to give their evidence without fear. It is only in this atmosphere that justice can be dispensed fairly. These are tasks that require patience and skill especially since vestiges of old attitudes still persist where the courtroom is made to be a place to be feared, even by lawyers. Let us hope that the newly appointed judges will foster courtesy as a hallmark of the conduct of judicial proceedings.  

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