After a lapse of seven years, hitherto unheard of, a Judicial Service Commission was finally appointed in July. During 2024 Guyana’s magisterial and judicial systems should have their full complement of magistrates, judges at the first instance and at the appellate level. It appears that as regards the two most important posts in our judiciary, the Chancellor and the Chief Justice, the President will, for no good, justifiable or lawful reason, continue to refuse to appoint the current holders of the positions in acting capacities, Justices George-Wiltshire and Cummings-Edwards, even though he has no alternative candidates and the acting incumbents are well entrenched in their positions and, to all appearances, are performing admirably and have the support of the legal profession. The President may nevertheless surprise Guyana and let 2024 be the year when “the time is right,” as he describes the obstacle.  

Earlier in December, at the Annual Dinner of the Guyana Bar Association, the Chancellor (ag), the Hon. Yonette Cummings-Edwards, gave the feature address. Her subject was ‘Open Justice.’ The issue might not resonate with the public but the accessibility of the public to the administration of justice and, in particular, to court proceedings that are required to be open to the public, has become a serious challenge. This issue has arisen only since the covid pandemic began in 2019. In an effort to maintain the functioning of the magistracy and judiciary, the court administration made extensive use of electronic facilities, namely, zoom, for court hearings. This was much more suited for High Court and Court of Appeal hearings, rather than the Magistrates’ Court although limited use is made of the zoom facility for remands of prisoners and more extensive use can be made of it when the modalities can be established by all parties.

Even the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) has adopted hearings by electronic means. Prior to its introduction a few short years ago, lawyers and litigants were required to travel to the seat of the Court in Trinidad and Tobago, which is not a member of the court, the day before and appear in court the following day, then return home after the hearing. This two, sometimes, three-day, effort is now concluded in a few hours by electronic means. It is only on two occasions, 2014 and 2023, that the CCJ sat in Guyana when two or three cases were heard each time. But the CCJ hears many cases from Guyana each year. The CCJ has facilities for electronic hearing located in the Court of Appeal and presumably, in other member countries. But they were not extensively made use of. Today most, if not all cases, are heard electronically.

The constitution of Guyana provides that “all proceedings of every court…shall be held in public (art. 144 (9)). There are exceptions such as juvenile proceedings, the trial of certain sexual offences and publication of these proceedings. It is not clear whether there is a right to access by the public to court documents when filed. However, lawyers and their staff have always had such access upon request. The press has published proceedings that have been filed from time to time. A wide variety of official documents are used at trials in the Magistrates’ Courts, High Courts and the Court of Appeal. These are not easily obtainable and cannot be easily accessed, or accessed at all, from any official source. Criminal trials in the Magistrates’ courts and in the High Court are held in open court with access to the public. There is no problem here.

Zoom trials in civil matters in the High Court and the Court of Appeal cannot really be deemed to be trials held in public.  Access is limited to the judge, court staff, parties, their lawyers and witnesses. The CCJ has overcome the issue of public hearings by its hearings being simultaneously broadcast on YouTube. This is unlikely to be possible for our courts. One likely solution is to publish each week the names of matters, the dates, times and places for hearings to facilitate attendance by persons with no access to computers and to also publish the zoom sign-in particulars for persons with access. Written submissions, specifically mentioned by the Chancellor, should be made available at the Supreme Court Registry to the public.

Zoom trials, implemented by the leaders of our judiciary as emergency measures to keep the system afloat in the direst of circumstances, are here to stay because of the enormous advantages and incalculable benefits they have brought to the legal profession and the administration of justice. Millions of hours of time will be saved each year by judges, lawyers, litigants and witnesses in travel time to get to and back from court. In the past the thousands of routine, uncontested, matters that have to be dealt with each year that required attendance in court and hours of time are now dealt with in zoom hearings.  

Combined with a full complement of magistrates and judges, within a justice system that makes maximum use of technology, aided by ‘open justice’ measures, our magistracy and judiciary and ought to have a successful 2024.     

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