Justice Desiree Bernard yesterday sat on the bench of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) for the last time, during the special sitting held in her honour where she was hailed as a champion for the rights of women and children and a regional trailblazer in the legal profession worthy of emulation.
The two-hour sitting, held at the Guyana Inter-national Conference Cen-tre at Liliendaal, brought down the curtains on Justice Bernard’s 33-year-long legal career and attracted regional and local practitioners, members of the judiciary, students of the Law Faculty of the University of Guyana and other well-wishers. Many persons were turned away as the seating arrangements were noticeably inadequate. With about twenty minutes to spare before the 10am start, the room that was set up for a three-day historic sitting of the court in Guyana was already filled.
Although she is retiring from the CCJ, to which she had been appointed since 2005, Justice Bernard will remain a judge on the Inter-American Adminis-trative Tribunal, a post she was appointed to in February 2011.
Replying to a number of speeches during the special sitting, Justice Bernard told the packed venue that she strived “humbly to fulfil the office of judge” and has always pledged to uphold the scales of justice, particularly by being patient with those who appeared before her.
She used the opportunity to comment on the local justice system, noting that there has been an increase in litigation and a decline in the number of cases that are being completed.
While noting that she has previously commended Acting Chancellor Carl Singh for performing miracles with the limited number of judges, she said that the amount has not been increased. She said that this might be because of the inability to persuade persons to take up the post. However, she stressed that ways have to be found if the administration of justice is to achieve its full objective. She called on Attorney General Anil Nandlall, Leader of the Bar, who was present at the sitting, to address this issue.
Justice Bernard said too that her journey up to this point was long with several bumps along the way. However, she described her appointment to the CCJ as the “crowning glory” of her judicial career and added that in the years of its existence the court has earned the respect of other courts as well as the people of the Caribbean. “I wish to give the assurance to the region that the CCJ is in safe and competent hands,” she noted.
Justice Bernard is the first and only female to be appointed President of the Organisation of Common-wealth Caribbean Bar Associations; the first female Chancellor of the Anglican Diocese of Guyana; and the first in the Province of the West Indies. In 1980 she became the first female High Court judge in Guyana; in 1992, the first female Justice of Appeal in the Court of Appeal; four years later the first female Chief Justice in Guyana; and in 2001 the first female Guyanese Chancellor and Head of the Judiciary and President of the Court of Appeal. Her appointment to the CCJ was also the first for a female.
‘Excellence and integrity’
CCJ President, Sir Denis Byron, who presided over the sitting, said that the intent was to pay tribute to and celebrate the outstanding career of Justice Bernard as she enters retirement. Pointing out that he has known her from the beginning of her career, he expressed the view that she could stay on forever.
He provided those in the courtroom with a background on her legal career and though he spoke about many of her achievements, he said that to capture everything may take up a week of sittings.
Justice Byron said that the Justice Bernard joins the ranks of several judges who have made sterling contributions within the region. He said that she was a “longtime defender” of women’s rights and was a trailblazer, breaking barriers for women in Guyana, the Caribbean and around the world.
He noted too that Justice Bernard was committed to the advancement of women and children’s rights across the region.
According to Justice Byron, when he thinks about Justice Bernard, “excellence and integrity” come to mind and he urged all to follow her example in this regard.
He said too that she was close to her religion and while she retires from the CCJ, she remains the Chancellor of the Church.
Chancellor Singh, in his remarks at the sitting, recalled how Justice Bernard continuously supported him. He said that she always made an effort to be just and fair to all those who would appear before her. He said that her career blazed a path for women in Guyana who pursued law or aspired to enter into judicial office.
According to Justice Singh, her legal career and her seat in the CCJ is eloquent testimony of women who strive for discipline and who are dedicated to the study of law. He noted too that she has been a fierce advocate for the independence of the judiciary.
Attorney General Nandlall, in brief comments, told the sitting that he had recognised that Justice Bernard has been a trailblazer and that it was a privilege and humbling experience to be afforded the opportunity to pay tribute to her. He described her as, among other things, a Caribbean icon.
Nandlall made mention of her ability to guide young practitioners and he recalled one such experience he had with her.
He said that while Justice Bernard has left a legacy for all to emulate, it will be an uphill task. He also urged her to continue her work so that the people of Guyana and the Caribbean can benefit.
Meanwhile, President of the Guyana Association of Women Lawyers Simone Morris–Ramlall recognised Justice Bernard for her work in the formation of the organisation, which is the first of its kind in the Caribbean as well as the Guyana Legal Aid Clinic. She said that Justice Bernard often kept lawyers in check and she particularly sought to empower women with knowledge of their legal rights. She said that she also mentored many.
During the sitting, there was also a video presentation by Tracey Robinson of the Caribbean Association of Judicial Officers hailing Justice Bernard for her contributions to the judiciary.
Also paying tribute to Justice Bernard were Secretary-General of Caricom Ambassador Irwin LaRocque, Justice of Appeal of the Supreme Court of Swaziland Justice Stanley Moore, Member of the CCJ Trust Fund Oswald Barnes, President of the Guyana Bar Association Ronald Burch-Smith and others.