Since the retirement of Chancellor (ag) Carl Singh and Chief Justice (ag) Ian Chang, the issue of their replacement has been at the forefront of discourse, at least privately, in legal circles, but occasionally in the media. I myself wrote about the issue once when I called on President Granger to appoint persons to fill the posts which had become vacant and had remained so for several months. I was quite pleased when the President made acting appointments of Chief Justice Yonette Cummings-Edwards as Chancellor (ag) and of Justice George-Wiltshire SC as Chief Justice (ag). Justice George-Wiltshire SC who was also subsequently appointed as an Appeal Court Judge.
These two acting appointments, which only required consultation with the Leader of the Opposition, were enormously popular in the legal profession. After some months as acting appointees, I can say with certainty that the anticipated performances of the Chancellor (ag) and Chief Justice (ag) have exceeded expectations amidst enormous challenges, which had commenced under the chancellorship of Carl Singh, not least among which are the implementation of the new Civil Procedure Rules, the establishment of courts with new jurisdictions for family and sexual offences, the appointment of additional judges and a building programme to house courts, magistrates and judges. I believe that this opinion is shared by the legal profession.
The manner of selection of high judicial officers came under scrutiny when the recently appointed Court of Appeal Judge Rabi Sukul, was forced to resign in February, 2014, after a seven month stint, when it was reported that he had been disbarred in the United Kingdom. Justice Sukul had been appointed in the normal way after an application to the Judicial Service Commission. Quite often, and historically, persons make or are invited to make applications. This practice continues today. But at around that time President Granger, then Leader of the Opposition, expressed the view that applications should be invited by public advertisements in Guyana and the Caribbean.
In relation to the positions of Chancellor and Chief Justice in Guyana, the President indicated in several announcements recently that public advertisements, which had been made, had elicited applications, that a specially appointed committee had been examining recommendations with a view to making recommendations to him, that the committee had recommended an applicant for the position of Chancellor and that the applicant had accepted the offer of appointment. The President said that he will approach the Leader of the Opposition for his consent when the applicant travels to Guyana.
It is widely believed that the applicant who has been recommended and has accepted is Chief Justice of Belize Kenneth Benjamin. A Guyanese graduate of the Hugh Wooding Law School in 1977, he started his legal career at the now dissolved law firm of Clarke & Martin and was in practice for about ten years. He was well regarded and most believed him to be a lawyer of great promise. Popular and well-liked, mild mannered and of a moderate temperament, although he must have developed the necessary firm judicial purpose on the Bench after leaving Guyana. He briefly served as a Magistrate and Judge Advocate of the GDF. In about 1980 he departed Guyana for the Caribbean and served as Magistrate and High Court Judge in several countries and, since 2011, as Chief Justice of Belize.
There is no doubt that Chief Justice Benjamin is well qualified to hold the post of Chancellor in Guyana. But he is well aware that he will have to deal with two important issues. The first will be the inevitable fallout from displacing a popular Chancellor (ag) Cummings-Edwards, whose confirmation was anticipated supportively by the entire legal profession. His appointment will result in Chancellor (ag) Cummings-Edwards and Chief Justice (ag) George Wiltshire SC reverting to their original positions as Justices of Appeal with one of them being appointed as Chief Justice.
The second issue that Chief Justice Benjamin will have to face is whether the Leader of the Opposition will consent to his appointment. There is no way this will be known until Mr Jagdeo meets with President Granger on the consultation. But if the consultation follows the previous perfunctory patterns, Chief Justice Benjamin will be at a disadvantage. He has been out of Guyana since 1980, is no longer well known and is not known by Mr Jagdeo or his advisors. The only answer is to make the process truly consultative, in accordance with what is impliedly expected by the constitutional provision.
The President and Mr Jagdeo are discharging a vitally important constitutional responsibility on behalf of all Guyana. They cannot properly do so unless both have had an equal opportunity to make an informed decision. President Granger must be assumed to have seen the applications, the CVs and the report of his advisory committee. He may have interviewed, but will certainly have at least spoken to, the available candidates. Mr Jagdeo must have equal access to the applications, the CVs and the report of the advisory committee. If it was oral, he must have the same report made to him orally and be able to interview the advisory committee, as well as the available applicants. Both President Granger and Mr Jagdeo must be placed in an equal position to make an informed decision.