Justice Desiree Bernard, who is set to retire as a judge in the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) in the near future, has left a legacy locally, regionally and internationally not just as a woman in the judiciary but also as a tireless worker on women and gender equality issues.
And while she is retiring from the CCJ as a judge, a position she has held since April 2005, Justice Bernard will still be functioning as a judge on the Inter-American Administrative Tribunal, a post she was appointed to in February 2011.
As a woman Justice Bernard boasts many firsts, starting with being the first and only female to be appointed President of the Organisation of Commonwealth Caribbean Bar Associations (OCCBA) in 1976; the first female Chancellor of the Anglican Diocese of Guyana, and the first in the Province of the West Indies in 1994. In 1980 she became the first female High Court judge; 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. The present position she holds at the CCJ is also the first for a female.
Told that she may have led the way for women to take up a leadership role in the judiciary as there have been many female judges since she was first appointed to the bench, Justice Bernard was modest about accepting this.
“Maybe I did pave the way…because once you break the barrier and me being the first it opened the avenue for others. It could have been said I led the way,” she said.
But while Justice Bernard has had many long and fulfilling years in the judiciary in addition to the period when she was a solicitor, she would tell you that her introduction to the law was not of her own making but rather it may have been the consequence of the potential others saw in her. She would tell you that she only applied for all the positions she held in the judiciary after being prompted by others.
And today as she reflects she says her years in the judiciary were “…very rewarding, very interesting and very productive. I thoroughly enjoyed my 33 years…”
During a telephone interview with the Sunday Stabroek from her office in Trinidad, Justice Bernard said she is satisfied as she believes that the judgments she had written would have reflected justice for the persons who had been before her.
And no judgment stands out in her mind as being more important than another as she heard cases in both the criminal and civil jurisdictions. But the first criminal case she did still comes to mind as it concerned a man accused of raping his 14-year-old niece and Justice Bernard said she views such offences as serious since they involved children. The man was found guilty and she sentenced him to 25 years in prison.
Speaking about her journey to making the law her profession, Justice Bernard recalled that it was never her lifelong dream to be a lawyer as she never saw herself as having the capacity to undertake legal work. But when she completed her ‘A’ levels it was suggested that she move in that direction, and because in those days the profession was split in two ‒ there was the solicitor who prepared the case and the barrister who presented it ‒ it was suggested that she train as a solicitor. She went to work as a solicitor with Cameron & Shepherd in the 1960s, and in 1967 she opened her own chambers. In 1980 the dichotomy between barristers and solicitors came to an end, and the profession was fused into one and all the members of it became attorneys-at-law. Following that she was asked by then Chancellor of the Judiciary Victor Crane if she was interested in becoming a judge in the High Court.
“I was not too keen on it because I did not think I had the capacity…but after thinking about it I agreed, and once I got into it I liked it and made the best of it,” the judge said.
She certainly made the best of it as in 1992 she became the first woman to be appointed a judge in the Court of Appeal and later in 1996 she became the first female Chief Justice. Five years later when she was encouraged to apply for the post of Chancellor, Justice Bernard again hesitated, but she went ahead, and it was the same scenario when it was suggested she apply to join the CCJ. She was told the court could not start without a female but acknowledged that she applied only because she was persuaded to do so as “I would not have done it on my own.” However, she continued, “I have no regret, hopefully I led the way for other women to follow.”
At present Guyana, Barbados and Belize are the only countries that use the CCJ as their final court of appeal, but Justice Bernard said it is hoped that the other Caribbean nations would follow suit as it was a necessary for the people of the region to have their final court in their own jurisdiction instead of clinging to a court miles away. She pointed out that Guyana had led the way since it had abolished the Privy Council in 1970, and after the CJJ was formed the country decided to join and make it the final court of appeal.
“Hopefully the others would see the light and respond,” Justice Bernard commented adding that because it was the final court the judges were always careful that their judgments could bear scrutiny.
“As members of the court we would discuss, write, sometimes re-write and come up with a judgment that can stand up internationally, and we have done it,” she said.
Meanwhile, given her years of experience in Guyana’s judicial system she asked where she sees it today, and Justice Bernard responded that as with every justice system it could always be improved “and one should never sit on their laurels, so to speak, and say it does not need improving… It needs improving, it is a work in progress…” She added that she would like to see more judges on the bench which would then reduce the backlog of cases.
However, for this to happen Justice Bernard said the emolument for judges would have to be increased to attract lawyers to the bench, as they would not give up their private practices unless it was profitable. She said the conditions in the court also need to be improved but conceded that wherever the administration of justice is being carried out there would be need for improvement and this would take money; however, she hopes this would be done.
In Guyana one of the important ventures she was involved in was the formation of the Georgetown Legal Aid Clinic, holding the post of chairperson of its Board of Directors for many years.
She recalled that she was a practitioner when the clinic was first established and she continued her involvement over the years. She said the formation of the clinic helped those without the means to access representation in the courts.
But apart from the law and the judiciary Justice Bernard has been involved in many other areas; she was the President of the Georgetown Toastmistress Club, a founder member of the Guyana Consumers Association, a member of the Council of the University of Guyana, member and Deputy Chairman of the Guyana Adoption Board, member of the Guyana Labour Code Commission, member of the Income Tax Board Review and member of the Board of Trustees of the Guyana Girl Guides Association, among others.
Asked how she found time for it all, Justice Bernard said someone would always find time if they were interested. She pointed out that she has always been particularly involved in women’s activities and she said improving the status of women kept her interested, while all the busy years were rewarding.
She said women across the region have made immense progress over the years, and in most of the countries there are active women groups. “Women have come a long way through the years and it has been very fulfilling to encourage women to take up their responsibilities,” she noted.
Her advice to young women is to let excellence be their key word, and that they should always perform to the best of their ability and “don’t cut corners; that works wonders in your success.”
And Justice Bernard said that she is concerned about the violence that is pervasive throughout the Caribbean and needs to be addressed. She said the news is always filled with people killing each other, and that people need to have more respect for each other and for life.
While she is sad to leave the CCJ, Justice Bernard, a mother of one daughter, said one should always know when it is time to leave, and for her the time is right. However, she would stay in contact with the court and offer assistance wherever necessary. She will still sit on the Inter-American tribunal but spend some time relaxing and work on putting the many speeches she had delivered over the years into book form.
And would she think about entering politics?
“I would never enter politics, don’t like it, never did like it and never will,” she said with finality.