Attorney-General (AG) Basil Williams SC yesterday defended his Chambers’ performance in court, saying that it has won more than it has lost and that he had inherited a number of weak cases from his predecessor.
Williams made the assertion at a news conference, where he gave an overview of his ministry’s performance for last year and said there have been many achievements, some of which were “unprecedented.”
Responding to questions from reporters, Williams lay blame at the feet of the previous government and his predecessor Anil Nandlall for cases lost by the Chambers.
The state has lost a number of significant cases, resulting in judgments which have to be borne by taxpayers.
Last November, the state incurred a debt of US$2.2 million which was awarded to Trinidad road construction company Dipcon, after losing its bid to appeal a judgment before the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ). The Regional Court ruled that AG (the appellant) in the matter, failed to file an application to the court for special leave to appeal, pursuant to section 8 of the CCJ Act.
The state also lost the case of Hareshnarine Sugrim v National Drainage and Irrigation Authority, which involved the sum of $300 million.
Another case lost by the state was that of the Berbice Bharati Saywah Sanga et al. v The Attorney General, in which the court awarded the sum of $17.8 million to the applicant, as full and final compensation for the compulsory acquisition of their property by the former government, to build the University of Guyana’s Tain Campus.
Williams yesterday said that the Chambers will continue its “institutional strengthening as it pursues its legislative agenda for 2018, while the Advice and Litigation Division will continue to provide advisory services and give representation for the state in court cases.”
Asked about the skills of local attorneys and the reason for his Chambers recently retaining two Barbadian Queen’s Counsel (QC) to help the government fight the opposition’s challenge to President David Granger’s unilateral appointment of retired judge James Patterson as Guyana Elections Commission (Gecom) Chairman, the AG asked, “there has to be a rationale?”
Williams then went on to list a number of instances in which he said lawyers from other Caribbean jurisdictions were retained to hear local cases. He singled out the PPP/C being represented by a Jamaican attorney in a Gecom case.
He said, too, that there were a number of Commissions of Inquiry held under the previous administration in which lawyers from various parts of the region were involved and that he did not see the need for a rationale.
Williams asserted that it is a “healthy thing” for lawyers to be able to visit each other’s countries to share jurisprudential positions, which will add to enriching the jurisprudence here and in the region as a whole.
Brutalised legal system
Last Friday, Barbadian QCs Ralph Thorne and Hal Gollop made oral submissions before acting Chief Justice Roxane George SC on behalf of the government, strongly defending President Granger’s unilateral appointment of Patterson.
Asked the cost for retaining the two QCs, Williams declined, saying, “Well, I don’t know if I can disclose the people business like that” and added that such a disclosure will be made “at the right time.”
He suggested that such a question be asked in Parliament.
Asked whether he believed attorneys here do not have the requisite skills to represent the government in the Gecom Chair challenge, the AG began by saying “the 23 years of PPP rule brutalised the legal system in Guyana.”
He advanced that 20 years ago, the PPP purported to appoint “a few senior counsel, and that was it.” He noted that no other senior counsel had been appointed, especially none in opposition at the time.
Williams took issue also with the fact that the previous government identified and paid a few lawyers, stating that “the profession was left like that.”
After the present government took office, he said that there was no senior counsel which could be retained who would not have been retained under the previous government.
Williams had previously told this newspaper when asked, that the reason attorneys from his chambers were not exclusively used was because “we wanted to add diversity to our local jurisprudence.”
He had said, too, that the two QCs have a wealth of knowledge in the area of constitutional law and have practised in many courts throughout the Commonwealth Caribbean.
Asked last Friday about the possibility of attorneys from other jurisdictions being also retained to hear Guyana’s appeal before the CCJ on the constitutionality of the presidential term limit, Williams said that this was likely.
With the case management conference to be held in another four weeks to determine dates for the hearing of the appeal, the AG was asked by this newspaper yesterday, whether external lawyers have been identified and from which territory. However, he said the questions were premature.
According to Williams, it is a determination for his ministry as to how it approaches its cases and he noted that the opposition does not announce what it will do, “we just see foreign lawyers coming out.”
Meanwhile, reading from a prepared statement on his ministry’s achievements over the past year, Williams boasted of his ministry’s successful hosting of the Caribbean Financial Action Task Force’s 46th plenary and working group meetings. He said that upon its conclusion, it acceded to the Chairmanship of the 25-member body of Caribbean, Central and South American Countries.
The ministry, he said, also built on its hugely successful hosting of the Hague Convention Conference of 2016 with a follow-up conference last year, to enable stakeholders to confirm support for accession to the various Hague Conventions including, child protection, adoption, abduction and maintenance.
Williams also bragged about the Apostille and other Conventions relating to Legal Commerce and Trade being adopted, noting that his ministry will collaborate with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to pursue Guyana’s adoption of them. Williams also noted the start of a collaboration between his ministry and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) to reduce the high concentrations of prison populations in Guyana, including the number of inmates who were pre-trial detainees, and increasing the use of alternative sentencing.
Against this background, the AG revealed that a US$8 million loan will be spent on a legal aid pilot project, a restorative justice programme, strengthened probation services and a law reform commission.
He said, too, that his ministry will continue government’s fight against corruption through its anti-corruption sensitisation seminars in all regions of the country by targeting employees of the state.
In the same vein, he said that “the Special Organised Crime Unit (SOCU) will continue to investigate and prosecute financial crimes involving around $900 billion.”
He also said that the Deeds and Commercial, and Land Registries continued to provide legal services to the public, and are engaged in the digitisation of their records. Williams noted that the goal is to enable persons to access the electronic registers without having to leave their homes or place of business.
According to the AG, the ministry is also in the process of finalising the engagement with its Jamaican partners in relation to the requirements of establishing the JOF Haynes Law School in Guyana.