Doubts persist over transparency in Senior Counsel appointments

– Ramjattan says new process is opportunity to shed political taint 

With the elevation to Senior Counsel long “tinged by politics,” leader of the AFC and attorney Khemraj Ramjattan expressed hope that the newest round of appointments will disprove the association.

Despite Ramjattan’s hopes, Attorney General Anil Nandlall has stated that there is an expectation that “certain office holders should automatically be considered for the silk,” without submitting an application to the Chancellor of the Judiciary. A notice from the Office of the Chancellor recently invited eligible attorneys to submit written applications to be elevated to the position.

Nandlall told Stabroek News that at this point in time he was not sure if he would be submitting an application but he did note that the Chancellor would be responsible for establishing the mechanism for the selection.

Ramjattan told Stabroek News that the new process had to be given a chance to prove that it was being done in a transparent manner. He said that the selections are to demonstrate that those eligible possessed the qualities of advocacy that would be recognised by judges and the Chancellor would then take those recommendations to the President. Unfortunately, he added, since the Burnham administration the appointment of Senior Counsel has been tinged with politics, which has affected the way in which the appointment is perceived. He said that this perception has remained to this day.

He noted that since Justice Desiree Bernard held the post of Chancellor of the Judiciary, from 2001 to 2005, she had asked him to apply. Ramjattan said that on her exit from the position, she had brought applications to several attorneys and they had applied but nine years have since passed before any word of potential elevation was made public. The last appointments took place 18 years ago.

Ramjattan said that the decision is ultimately the President’s and that while the Chancellor will make recommendations, it does not mean that the President will adhere to those recommendations.

APNU Executive Member and attorney Basil Williams told Stabroek News that he submitted his application over 10 years ago and that there has been little development since. Williams stated that he was pleased to see the advertisement by the Office of the Chancellor since if there had just been appointments there would have been severe backlash.

Williams added that the process needed to be more transparent and that the methodology and criteria used by the Office of the Chancellor should be disclosed as the process advances.

Attorney and Chairman of the AFC Nigel Hughes told Stabroek News that he did not wish to comment on whether he would withdraw his application or if he would reject the appointment if it were bestowed upon him. However, he did say that the fact that there was no repudiation of the former president Bharrat Jagdeo’s statements that Hughes will never be appointed to Senior Counsel because, as Jagdeo put it, he was on “permanent retainer for the drug dealers” would weigh on his final decision.

While Hughes did not wish to give any further comment, head of the Guyana Bar Association Ronald Burch-Smith told Stabroek News that it was his opinion that Hughes should be elevated to Senior Counsel as his record speaks for itself. He added that the vast majority of attorneys in Guyana would agree that Hughes was deserving of the appointment.

He said that Jagdeo’s comments were unfortunate and that the current administration, including the Attorney General, should have stated that Jagdeo’s opinion did not reflect those of the party and didn’t carry any weight, especially in the process of selecting Senior Counsel.a

Like Ramjattan, Burch-Smith stated that the new process is a way to remove the politicisation associated with the process.

Attorney Christopher Ram has been critical of the process. “I doubt that anyone will suggest that such appointments are even relevant at this stage, or conducive to addressing those problems. But if we have to engage in an exercise about senior counsel let us have an open discussion involving the public whether the distinction has served the public interest or whether it should be abolished altogether,” he said in a post on his blog,

If after a public discussion the retention of the category of Senior Counsel was indeed justified, he added, the selection process should be inclusive of non-lawyers. He said that the reconstitution of the Judicial Service Commission could address some of the underlying issues that circumvent and at the same time infiltrate the Senior Counsel appointments, which would lead to the overwhelming politicisation of the process.

“There is no Continuing Professional Education and it is anyone’s guess whether attorneys are familiar with the Code of Conduct set out in the Fourth Schedule to the Legal Practitioners Act. It is no surprise then that breaches of the Code are a routine occurrence among junior and senior lawyers and it would be interesting to ascertain how many attorneys keep “[clients’] money in a bank account separate from their own,” as the Code requires,” he said.

“The stories of misconduct by attorneys at law are legendary and are retold as matters for humour rather than offence and embarrassment,” he added.

Since the Office of the Chancellor began advertising for eligible persons to apply there has been keen interest in how the process will be played out.

Acting Chancellor of the Judiciary Carl Singh had told Stabroek News that the appointments will be done in a fair, transparent and justifiable manner.

The elevation has long been an informal endeavour with no defined time frame between appointments.

Stabroek News understands that the 18-year gap—the last appointments were done in 1996—was because it was the President who made the recommendations for elevation to Senior Counsel.




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