Words wrongly attributed

Dear Editor,
I see Mrs Joan Ward-Mars has attempted a response to me in the the KN and SN editions of March 30 in relation to funding for the Linden Legal Aid Centre (LLAC).
Except for one claim which I shall address later, the response does not surprise me one bit and confirms an impression that I had eventually and reluctantly formed that Mrs Ward-Mars was just not getting it.

In my letter I had made two main points. Firstly I had enquired whether Ms Dodson had authorization to speak on behalf of GAWL or if she went on a frolic of her own while wearing the hat of President of the Guyana Association of Women Lawyers (GAWL); secondly I had specifically said that government was funding LLAC through  privided  funds by UNICEF.

Mrs Ward-Mars asserts that because Emily Dodson is a woman and because I believe in women’s rights and empowering women I should not have refuted the erroneous things said by Ms Dodson and also claims that Ms Dodson has a fundamental right to freedom of expression and so should be allowed to say whatever she wants.

For the record I have never held the view either that being a woman gives one a free pass to make false representations or that another woman cannot expose said falsities when they are made. Clearly from Emily Dodson’s initial claims which in essence would have been claims made against me (a fellow woman) as the Minister at the time and given these present claims by Mrs Ward-Mars against me now, some of which are just downright lies which I shall address later, I find Mrs Ward-Mars uses this woman-for-woman-support argument conveniently.

It is true that Ms Dodson has a fundamental right to freely express herself but she does not have a fundamental right to mislead. And again Mrs Ward-Mars missed the point. I have no problems with Ms Dodson speaking, but I and other members of GAWL have a huge problem with our President making wild, ill informed and political statements that we did not as members authorise. Or is Mrs Ward-Mars suggesting that the members of this professional association who have said [there is a] problem do not count? But all of this could be solved easily. There is an executive that as members we elect to run and manage the affairs of GAWL. If the executive authorised Ms Dodson to “chide the government,“ “meet the leader of the opposition,” “call on members of parliament to act” and say “the government is treating Linden as stepchildren” then, as I asked, they should adopt those statements. If GAWL does not adopt those statements as their own, then at the very least Ms Dodson must confess that she spoke in her private capacity and not leave the impression that GAWL made those reckless and untrue statements.

Mrs Ward-Mars seems to think that good intentions  alone suffice to receive and justify spending, and unfortunately this just is not so and she keeps failing to understand this.

Two examples that demonstrate to me that Mrs Ward-Mars just does not get it are her expressed and repeated disquiet that even though the Prime Minister had called and asked me to allocate five million dollars to LLAC, I still did not and that in November last year LLAC did not have funds and she asked me for money and I still did not give. Editor, I do not have the power to take money from one place to which said money was appropriated in the National Assembly and give it to another place, irrespective of how I personally feel or of how good the cause is. I cannot even use or instruct the use of money that was appropriated for ink to buy gasolene in the same ministry. If I do it would amount to misappropriation. And I cannot force GLAC to collaborate with any other organisation if GLAC first requires certain record-keeping. I do not know how to say this any more clearly.

I note too that Mrs Ward-Mars has not denied that LLAC receives money from UNICEF but continues to claim that government does not support LLAC. Again, I do not know how to say this so that Mrs Ward-Mars could get it. If UNICEF gives money to LLAC it is because government supported and approved same. Without said support and approval UNICEF cannot disburse Guyana’s country funds.

I see Mrs Ward-Mars saying that LLAC has not received the sum of $9,060,070 from UNICEF. Well I have in writing that UNICEF has indeed disbursed that money. In fact the figures I used in my previous letter were provided directly from GLAC and the UNICEF office in Guyana. If in fact that money was not disbursed then I would myself advocate that the sum that the GOG approved for LLAC be disbursed as soon as possible.

Lastly, I wish to address Mrs Ward-Mars claim that I, Priya Manickchand, said that “Linden does not need a Legal Aid Centre” and “you all can go to who you like, you have nothing to get…” This is most difficult for me to respond to as, save and except someone else who was at the meeting (who would all have been members of the board of LLAC) steps forward to dispute this, it really is my word against Mrs Ward-Mars’ word. For the record, I specifically deny ever having conceived of any such thought let alone uttering any said words. I specifically call on Mr Fitz Peters, attorney-at-law, to be the gentleman I know him to be and tell the people of Guyana whether I uttered any such words. Incidentally, I have already spoken to Mr Fitz Peters who says clearly that, while he did not take notes, he does not recall me saying any such thing.

In the meantime I offer the following facts that can be easily verified and leave it up to your readers to determine whether given said facts, there is likely to be any truth to this most wicked claim.

1. When the Georgetown Legal Aid Clinic was about to close its doors because of lack of funding in or around 2003, while I was a lawyer in private practice, I volunteered my services and along with one other lawyer in the person of Sandra Kurtzious and with some dedicated and hard-working support staff and a persistent board of directors who spent their own personal money we managed to keep the doors of the Clinic open.

I continued to volunteer at the Clinic until in or around 2005 when the Clinic received funding and started to pay me a stipend. Although I managed my own practice, I continued to work there until the day before I was sworn in as a minister of the government.

2.  During 2006, before LLAC came onto the scene or before we knew that they had,  Jolyon Hatmin, Gary Best and myself, then the lawyers at the Legal Aid Clinic, decided that even with our limited funding we would expand our services to Linden. We were kindly provided with transportation support and started going to Linden to advise and represent clients. I believe most of this representation was done by (now Commodore) Best.

3.  Upon my assumption to political office I made it very clear publicly that one of my priorities would be to expand legal aid services and by 2008 in addition to the Georgetown Legal Aid Clinic offering service in Georgetown and Linden alone, in collaboration with the two Clinics, through conscious and deliberate efforts, offices were opened in Regions 2, 5, 6 and 10. In fact the Georgetown Legal Aid Clinic because of the massive expansion had to be renamed The Guyana Legal Aid Clinic.

4.  Mrs Ward-Mars herself says that their board continuously met with me and I say that those meetings were first with a view to ensuring LLAC began their operation and thereafter that they continued their operations.

5.  The KN on June 20, 2009 reported that “Government and the Directors of the Linden Legal Aid Centre yesterday officially launched Linden Legal Aid Centre…” and the Chronicle reported on June 22, 2009 that “….speaking at the ceremony Minister of Human Services and Social Security Ms Priya Manickchand said this centre has been in existence for a while now. However, she said it was officially launched because the weekly presence of lawyers from other parts of the country was not sufficient to deal with the issues of the people in Linden…”; and the SN of June 20, 2009 reported, “The centre was established with support and funding from UNICEF and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in collaboration with the Government of Guyana. Minister of Human Services and Social Security Priya Manickchand officially declared the centre open and encouraged the full utilization of its services. She said that prior to the establishment of the centre, similar services were extended to residents but on a limited scale. She also stated that the government would not seek to compete with the centre but rather give maximum support in areas that are necessary…”

Editor, if long before I became Minister I, along with my law colleagues, decided that Linden needed legal aid services and actually worked to provide those services, then how likely is it that I would have said “Linden does not need a legal aid centre”? How likely is this to be my view when I have publicly advocated for legal aid in every region and actually worked consciously to bring legal aid to 6 of the 10 regions in Guyana. And why would I have kept meeting with LLAC over the years as per Mrs Ward-Mars’ own admission if I held and expressed the view in that early meeting as she claims, that “you all can go to who you like, you have nothing to get…” And if I held this view that Linden did not need legal aid and that the LLAC had “nothing to get,” then I must have been schizophrenic to have been actively involved in the preparation for and the actual opening of the LLAC, including causing to be provided, banners, programmes, tokens, decorations, refreshments, staff to prepare for the opening, publicly supporting the opening and declaring the Clinic open etc, etc. And the LLAC must have been held at gunpoint to have “in collaboration with the Government of Guyana opened the Linden Legal Aid Clinic.” And of course the KN, the SN and the GC all conspired with me to publish my open and declared support for the establishment and continuation of legal aid generally and the LLAC specifically as is hereinbefore quoted, thereby negating the likelihood of my uttering those words that Mrs Ward-Mars untruthfully attributed to me. I would like to think that Guyana knows me well enough to say whether that sounds like something I am likely to say. Indeed, I believe your readers can judge from my actions whether that is something I would have said.

I reiterate that I believe legal aid is a necessary service that must be offered. I doubt that my belief or my commitment to the provision of legal aid service is ever going to falter and I shall continue to do whatever I can to ensure this service never stops. It is unlikely that I could be clearer on any of these issues and any more energy or time I expend on the subject of legal aid will be to actually assist in the provision of service. Consequently, this is my last piece of correspondence on this matter.

Yours faithfully,
Priya Manickchand

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