I attempt below to answer a question which forms the caption of a letter (SN, December 12), ‘Is something wrong with the selection process for magistrates?’ written by Francis Carryl. This is one of the easiest questions to answer about life in Guyana.
There is no selection process for magistrates in Guyana. The shortages are always there thus the vacancies are always there. If there were many applicants to choose from, then one could speak of the selection criteria.
To understand why a person would become a lawyer but lacks the capacity to perform as an attorney one has to go back many years when people regarded the two most prestigious occupations as medicine and law. If you were a doctor or a lawyer then you become part of the crème de la crème of society. Strangely, this tradition holds strong up to today. Competition for entry into medical school is common at most universities in the world, including moribund UG. Ask any immigrant in the US, Canada and Europe and they would tell you it is almost impossible to compete with local applicants for a place in the medical school of any university. This explains the reason for the birth of offshore medical schools in small, obscure countries. Young people all over the world feel they have arrived or they have it made if they are a doctor or a lawyer.
The practice of law or competence in the courts is a completely different matter. I taught countless law students during my 26 years stay at UG, including our country’s Attorney General and a number of magistrates. As a lecturer it wasn’t hard to detect who would fall by the wayside even though they passed the bar. But I know why they wanted to become lawyers.
It has reached the unpleasant stage where Guyana has more lawyers than any other profession. Yes, including doctors.
Many of these attorneys cannot earn a middle-class, monthly income. Some find work in state corporations. Others end up in the private sector. Others just cannot make it as courtroom performers. They settle for the municipal courts where the cases are small matters and lawyer’s fees are small; for example, the city council charged someone for blocking a drainage canal with builder’s waste. Some specialize in landlord/tenant cases.
One has to understand that with rents in downtown areas sky high, plus utilities bills plus secretarial salaries, these mediocre lawyers will not survive in private practice. In a country drowning in vehicular traffic, a second-rate mechanic takes home ten times what these mediocre lawyers earn on Croal Street.
There is an absurd dimension to this intriguing reality. While dozens of lawyers go hungry, there is a small school of lawyers who simply cannot take off the workload. The reason for this is that people do not take chances on important cases; they want to feel secure with a top-class lawyer. Against this backdrop, I will now attempt an answer to Mr Carryl’s question. I say in all honesty, some magistrates are so poor in terms of erudition, scholarship and competence that litigants and accused would not take them if they set up private practice. I come now to an interesting point. There are magistrates who take excessive latitude in abusing people that appear in front of them and behaving in disgraceful ways because they know the state needs them. Remove them and the shortage gets more disturbing. Since 1985, Guyana has not had an adequate number of magistrates.