The justice system remains “broken” despite the $4 billion spent in the IDB-funded four-year Justice Sector Reform Strategy Programme and this is “a clear case of no value for money spent,” attorney Basil Williams said as the debate on 2012 budget continued in the National Assembly yesterday.
However, Attorney General Anil Nandlall said that the legal sector is undergoing a “massive transformation” even as he acknowledged that there is a lot more to be done. Nandlall and Williams—who is APNU’s shadow minister of Legal Affairs—faced off yesterday in an at times raucous atmosphere as parliamentarians on both sides heckled loudly forcing the Speaker to call, more than once, for calm.
According to Williams, a quality justice system is not a priority of the government. He said that the justice system is beset by shortages of judicial personnel, inordinate delays in criminal and civil trials, archaic court rooms and inadequate facilities. He said that the High Court requires a complement of 15 judges but has only 9 in addition to the Chief Justice. There is no judge in the family court and there are currently 234 cases listed for the criminal sessions before two judges, he said. Williams also pointed out that instead of five judges plus the Chancellor and Chief Justice in the Court of Appeal, there are only two judges plus the latter two. “This is a wholly unacceptable position and shows a palpable lack of political will on the part of the government which is also unconcerned about the two highest ranked judges acting for years,” Williams charged.
He called for the courtrooms to be modernized and said the Chambers of the Director of Public Prosecutions must regain its focus and adopt best practices. “It cannot harbour … lawyers in private practice,” Williams said. “This would engender the anomalous situation where a lawyer representing accused persons could access the evidence of his clients in the DPP Chambers. This could further lead to his clients’ charges being inexplicably withdrawn and or given plea bargains to the disadvantage of their co-accused,” he said. Williams called for the DPP Chambers to increase its complement of lawyers and remunerate them properly. “We cannot have private practitioners wanting to run with the hares and hunt with the hounds because that would lead to great injustice,” he said.
Williams also noted that this is the final year for the IDB-funded Justice Sector Reform Strategy Programme and for the four-year period $2.1 billion has been allocated. “It must be Mr. Speaker, one of the great mysteries of all time, that so much money could have been spent with nothing to show,” he said. “It is a clear case of no value for money spent,” he asserted.
The attorney said that every person coming into contact with the justice system should be guaranteed due process; a fair hearing within a reasonable time before an impartial tribunal. “Trial by ambush” must also be avoided, he said, explaining that a man charged in 2006 on one set of facts must not be confronted with a new set of facts when he faces his trial years later. “We must not abuse the laws of this country because we abuse the Guyanese people when we do that,” he said. A programme for the review of legislation and laws of Guyana is desirable, the attorney said.
Williams, who also has responsibility for Labour in APNU, in his lengthy presentation, also dismissed the budget saying it is not friendly to the Guyanese people and accused the government of having “a seemingly malevolent attitude” towards public servants. He said that Finance Minister, Dr. Ashni Singh made no mention of increased wages for public servants. “This means if they have their way these workers are condemned to a life of poverty and destitution,” he said. Williams added that the public servants have not had any real increases in their income for over a decade. However, he noted that there are provisions in the budget for increased wages and according to him, Labour Minister Dr. Nanda Gopaul has confirmed that the budget caters for additional increases. Public servants are entitled to be paid an increase, he argued. There is a lot of money to “make the public servants right,” he said.
Addressing the issue of contract employees, Williams said the wages budget for contracted employees this year has risen to $6 billion from $1.3 billion in 2005. He asserted that they are doing the same work as the public servants in the traditional establishment but are paid more. He said that in the Supreme Court there are 83 contracted employees while in the Deeds Registry, there are 16 contracted employees. The attorney said that the government is happy with this situation and since contracted employees have no security of tenure, are at the whims of the government and could be manipulated. He recommended that all contracted employees be assimilated into the public service establishment. He also urged the government to restore the subventions to the Guyana Trades Union Congress, the Critchlow Labour College and the Women’s Advisory Committee.
The attorney also accused the government of favouring certain regions they consider favourable to them in the allocation of funds citing Region One, which, he said, is receiving $600M compared to $200M for Region Four. He also slammed the government for failing to tackle unemployment. “This government has failed miserably to provide jobs in this country,” he declared. Williams outlined several measures including a 20% increase in wages and a reduction of income tax to 25% which he said could ensure that public servants earn a living wage.
Free to rule
Speaking after Williams, Nandlall said that it is the aim of the government to create a justice system that is free of the political manipulation that occurred before. In a lengthy presentation, he said that now there is a judiciary that feels free to rule in accordance with the law both for and against the government. “The legal sector is undergoing massive transformation,” he said adding that there has been a lot done but there remains a tremendous amount of work to be done.
In response to Williams’ comments about the complement of judges, Nandlall said that they intend to amend the High Court Act to increase the complement. He said that transformation of physical infrastructure has also been done and will continue in addition to institutional strengthening. The Justice Sector Reform project is coming to an end and much has been done, Nandlall said while outlining some of the accomplishments including the availability in the coming months of published versions of the Laws of Guyana in addition to others.
Registrar of Deeds
In addition, Nandlall said, the reform, including the digitizing of records, of the Deeds Registry continues. The transport as well as the business registration systems is computerized, he said adding that a Registrar of Deeds will soon be appointed. The non-appointment of a registrar has been a longstanding problem. The AG said that it is their intention that the Deeds Registry have greater autonomy and the necessary legislation will be brought to the National Assembly. It is also the intention to separate the Deeds Registry from the Commercial Registry, he said. The Official Gazette will also be made available online, the AG said.
Nandlall said that there is a packed legislative agenda for 2012 and legislation is being designed to deal with the emerging oil and gas sectors. “We are also going to amend certain important legislation that will have tremendous impact on the lives of the ordinary people,” he said singling out a land sale law. In addition, on the agenda is an amendment of the civil law act attempting to equate the common-law wife with the legal wife. With reference to the shortage of attorneys at the DPP’s Chambers, he said that government remains committed once funds are available to increase salaries not only for those in that area but across the board.
“We are also going to bring to the National Assembly, the Act that would allow us finally to appoint part-time judges,” he further said, adding that he has already had consultations with the Chancellor and the official has said that the judiciary is ready to move with that initiative.
Public Service Minister, Dr. Jennifer Westford also responded to some of Williams’ statements saying that in relation to contract workers, the employees have a choice and some have opted for this. Amidst heckling by opposition members, she said that the conditions of employment, including salaries for both categories, are the same.