The pervasive lack of respect for the law may neutralise the fruits of constitutional reform

Dear Editor,

I note today the calls for constitutional reform, and the attendant expectations of such a reform process. In light of such calls, I wish to contribute two points.

The first point is that constitutional reform must be accompanied by ensuring that citizens, especially the poor and disadvantaged, enjoy greater access to the court for the purpose of upholding its (the constitution’s) integrity, as well as, and particularly, vindicating the constitutional rights and other guarantees articulated therein.

The Constitution of the Coopera-tive Republic of Guyana does not, in the literal sense, speak for itself. It is the judiciary, empowered to authoritatively interpret and apply the text of the instrument, which speaks on its behalf.

As such, notwithstanding clear, unambiguous constitutional stipulations, citizens may not be able to enjoy the protections and other entitlements which enure to them by virtue of the Constitution unless they invoke the jurisdiction of the courts by commencing litigation.

One issue with this process is that litigation is expensive. Furthermore, it is a fact, unsavoury as it may be, that even if one is capable of affording legal representation, the quality of representation one receives is, more often than not, determined by the depth of one’s pockets.

These realities combine, in too many instances, to place the judiciary outside of the reach of those who are most in need of its services – the poor and disadvantaged. For this reason, it is imperative that government, having regard to its available resources, take reasonable steps to provide legal aid services to citizens. The free or subsidised legal aid offered by the Legal Aid Clinic of Guyana, which receives a subvention from the Government of Guyana, has worked for years to ensure persons in the lowest socio-economic brackets are able to gain access to the court, and, by extension, to justice. It is, however, without question, that more has to be done in this area.

The second point is that habitual lack of respect for, and adherence to law, both of which seem to pervade all sections of Guyanese society, are likely to neutralise the fruits of any undertaking in constitutional reform.

For instance, many Guyanese obtain their driver’s licence illegally. In fact, this is now considered a norm, and offenders admit to doing this openly. Traffic laws are violated religiously by motorists and pedestrians. How many citizens actually wait on the green man before crossing the road? Residents and vehicle operators alike blast music without regard for the relevant laws. These and other ‘goings on’ validate the contention of Professor Justice Duke Pollard that Guyana is lawless society, a position he oft shares with his students in the Department of Law at the University of Guyana. I am in agreement with the professor.

To be clear, I am of the opinion that a plethora of benefits can flow from effecting rational, well-reasoned amendments to the Consti-tution. I am equally convinced that until and unless citizens, policy-makers, and all other relevant stakeholders cultivate a culture of deference to, respect for, and compliance with the Constitution, the seemingly imminent reform process and whatever changes it produces will do nothing to cure the ailments which plague us, and which are the subjects of the current reform process.

Guyana’s distant and recent history is replete with examples of contempt for the Con-stitution, and expedient approbation of its provisions.

In 2001, the Constitution was amended to dictate the establishment of a Local Government Commission (Article 78A), yet approximately sixteen years on, it has not been set up, and there is no indication as to when it will be. Article 212G (1) (a), also the product of a 2001 amendment, stipulates the establishment of a Human Rights Com-mission, but successive governments have failed to establish the commission. Article 212W (1) demands the establishment of Public Procure-ment Commission. This body was only recently constituted, though the need for the commission was also the product of a 2001 amendment. The Public Service Appellate Tribunal, necessitated by Article 215A (1), was reconstituted this year after a more than twenty-year hiatus.

Such lax regard for the Con-stitution, and other statutes for that matter, is unacceptable, and must not continue. If it does, the waste of time and money will continue to be the only real products of constitutional reform in Guyana.

Yours faithfully,

Chevy Devonish

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