Funding from UNICEF for legal aid in Region 10 has not been continuous

Dear Editor,

Please permit me the space in your newspaper to reply to Minister Priya Manickchand’s letter in the March 29 edition of your newspaper entitled ‘Funds for legal aid in Linden were provided under the GOG/UNICEF Country Programme.‘ In light of this unprecedented attack on the integrity and character of one of the most highly respected female members of the bar, I hope my legal colleagues will have the courage to join me in condemning this most unwelcome departure from the traditions of this great profession.  Since Minister Manickchand has chosen to deal with this matter in the public domain, I also think it is incumbent upon me to set the record straight.  I sincerely hope that Minister Manickchand will realize the seriousness of the erroneous allegations she has levelled against Ms Dodson and offer an unqualified apology.

Ms Emily Dodson is a senior member of the bar who is well known not only for her undisputed professional excellence, but also her remarkable humility, unyielding standards of ethical conduct, and steadfast adherence to humanitarian principles.  She was elected by her peers as President of the Guyana Women Lawyers’ Association, which as far as I am aware, is not a secret society nor does it prohibit its members from exercising their fundamental constitutional right to freedom of expression.  As a leader in the area of women’s rights in a country that regularly proclaims its commitment to the welfare of vulnerable women and children, it is incumbent upon Ms Dodson and all others who have a voice, to speak for the voiceless members our society. In fact, I asked Ms Dodson to bring the matter of the funding of legal aid in Region 10 to the attention of the newly appointed Attorney General, the new parliament and anyone else who may be able to ensure that a reliable and continuous source of funding is made available for Region 10.

What Ms Dodson stated in her press release is merely a repetition of what I have told all who would care to listen over the years beginning with the Prime Minister of Guyana Samuel Hinds, who met with some of the directors of the then newly incorporated Centre in November, 2007.  The Prime Minister welcomed us and after we provided him with a proposal for funding, he called Minister Manickchand on the telephone in our presence and suggested that she allocate five million of the thirty-six million dollars that had just been voted for legal aid by Parliament. The Prime Minister also arranged a meeting for us with Minister Manickchand that was to take place on Friday, December 11, 2007.  After trying repeatedly to confirm the meeting with Minister Manickchand, we were eventually told that the Minister was busy and we could try again after the middle of January 2008.  At that point, we dispatched a letter to the Prime Minister (a copy of which is still in my possession) outlining what had happened and seeking his further assistance, but we never heard from Prime Minister Sam Hinds again with respect to this matter.

Contrary to what Minister Manickchand said in her letter, we had no funding from any source at that time. We called her office more times than I can count, and eventually we were granted a meeting with the Minister in the course of which we were told many things in addition to the following words which remain etched in my memory for obvious reasons: “Linden does not need a legal aid centre” and “you all can go to who you like, you have nothing to get.”  Although we did not know it at that time, these words were prophetic.

We were subsequently funded by USAID to whom we had already applied and were awaiting a response and then by UNICEF later in the year, but our funding from UNICEF has not been continuous, and is far removed from the erroneous picture painted by Ms Manickchand. Our allocations from both agencies (which will be reproduced verbatim from information requested from our auditors in the second segment of this letter) included sums representing the purchase of expensive non-expendable equipment (computers, air-conditioners, copiers, printers, filing cabinets, etc) and furniture, as well as expenses that are unique to us such as in the area of transportation. Millions of dollars provided by USAID was used to repair, paint, carpet and refurbish the top floor of the Christianburg Magistrate’s Court Building which was destroyed in the fire.  We are not currently in receipt of any grant money from UNICEF for the operation of legal aid in Region 10 and UNICEF-Guyana has not been able to give us any date when we would be likely to receive future funding. This has happened on three occasions since we were first funded in 2008: August to November 2009; November 2010 to January 2011 and September 30 to December 3, 2011, and it is during these periods that we have appealed to the government for funding but all to no avail.

We have executed three grant contracts with UNICEF-Guyana – the first in August, 2008 for twelve months; the second in December 2009 for twelve months and the final small-scale funding agreement in November, 2011 for three months (ending in January 2012).  UNICEF has granted quarterly extensions of funds whenever they could, but there were still periods of time when we were without any grant funds whatsoever as indicated above.  I sincerely wish that we had obtained nine million dollars from April 2011 to December 2012 as the Minister alleges. After the fire, nothing was donated to us to replace what was lost.  Everything that we now have was purchased from grant money provided by UNICEF-Guyana. The operating costs of the Linden Legal Aid Centre also include transportation from Linden to Georgetown that exceeds a million dollars a year.

The senior lawyers who serve our clients largely donate their services to the Centre and leave their homes before 7 am in the morning to get to the Christianburg Magistrate’s Court in Linden and then proceed to the Centre to interview sometimes twenty or more old and new clients per day.  On many occasions they return home after nightfall having been engaged for over twelve continuous hours. No out-of-town or other allowances are provided for these attorneys, neither is there any leave or leave pay etc; all they get is transportation which is provided currently at a cost of $12,000 per return trip (and we have been notified by the contractor of an increase to be implemented soon). In light of the dire security situation in the country, the dangers of the Linden Highway and the fact that most of our attorneys are women we feel that this expense is justified.

The lawyers also appear in the High Court in Georgetown on the other days of the week to deal with the large number of divorce, division of property, child custody and other matters relating mainly to vulnerable women and children in the community.  These lawyers can never be adequately paid for their services. Ms Dodson is only one of many lawyers who have served the people of Linden, using her staff in Georgetown and her own paper and supplies to prepare, print and file documents for our clients entirely free of charge.  Ms Dodson has also repeatedly and cheerfully gone the extra mile to assist pensioners to obtain their birth and other records required for securing identification cards and accessing NIS and other benefits. This is why this unjust assassination of her character is particularly egregious and painful to witness.

We have always been transparent and open about our financial status. Our audited annual reports are published on our website www.justiceforlinden.org. In November, 2010 while we were out of funds, I delivered a dossier to Minister Manickchand containing all our financial records dating back to 2007 from the accounting firm of Ram & McRae, annual reports required under the Companies Act and other official information and materials in an effort to secure funding, followed by numerous phone calls to her office – all in vain.  Last year, in order to avoid the impending temporary closure of the Centre while awaiting grant funds, we wrote Cabinet Secretary, Dr Roger Luncheon but that appeal was also ignored. The remaining issues will be discussed in the next segment.

Yours faithfully,
Joan Ward-Mars
Company Secretary
Linden Legal Aid Centre

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