Since 2015, the Rights of the Child Commission (RCC) has been able to help more than 400 juvenile offenders access legal aid through funding from United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and assistance from the Guyana Legal Aid Clinic.
During an interview with this newspaper, RCC Chief Executive Officer Amar Panday and Investigating Officer Andre Gonsalves said that the beneficiaries were able to have their cases reviewed.
Panday explained that in 2015, the RCC had commenced its Youth Empowerment and Personal Development sessions at the Sophia Holding Centre and during its first workshop it would have met 15-year-old Ian Henry, who was charged with murder in 2011.
“He remained there until he was 17, and then he was transferred to the Camp Street Prison because he was approaching adulthood. After the upheaval at Camp Street, he was transferred to the Timehri Prison,” Panday said, while pointing out that from the moment the RCC encountered him in 2015 to 2016, it was working assiduously in formulating a plan to not only get legal representation for him but also for the hundreds of other children who were seeing their rights trampled upon.
Panday said the RCC discovered that over 95% of the children being held at different holding centres and prisons around the country were being denied their right to legal representation.
The discovery spurred it on and an approach was made to UNICEF, from which it was able to secure $1 million for the Guyana Legal Aid Clinic, which had also indicated that it was willing to help.
“We had to approach the respective programme officer and then the resident representative who checked to see if it is in consonance with the country programme, and it did fall under the area of child protection, and they released the money to the legal aid clinic,” Gonsalves explained, while highlighting that the process to secure the funding took some time.
With the funding secured, visits to the different centres and prisons subsequently commenced.
“We wanted to see if children at the centres were interested in having their cases reviewed, and some of those cases were reviewed. Some of the parents of the children indicated that they were not interested,” Panday said.
However, Henry and others were finally able to have legal representation, which, for him, resulted in the Director of Public Prosecutions’ office dismissing his case as there was not sufficient evidence being presented against him to keep him incarcerated.
“The funding expanded as a result of the success. Today, there should be over 400 cases that they have been able to have a sit down with for legal advice,” Gonsalves said, while highlighting that the important thing is not about having cases dismissed, but giving the young offenders an opportunity to be able to sit with a legal advisor and have their cases reviewed.
Gonsalves explained that they were able to do a study to show where crimes are being committed and what type. They have since found that most of the crimes that are committed by youths are victimless and nonfinancial crimes.
“I’ve noticed that more and more cases are being dismissed for lack of evidence, one or two were sent back to the NOC [New Opportunity Corps],” Gonsalves said.
He also pointed out that a case was brought to them by the head of the NOC, who had requested that it be reviewed. Gonsalves explained that after they did the review, it was discovered that the probation officer that was attached to the case did not do a report.
“The report was done by a Childcare and Protection Agency officer and it was a different circumstance. The Probation Officer could not go before the court and make representation on the report. Most children that come into conflict with the law all centre on poverty,” he said, while highlighting that the entire state apparatus and other stakeholders need to come together and pool their energies and resources to address the issues.
Despite being able to provide legal assistance to hundreds of children, Gonsalves highlighted that they faced several issues, with the paramount one being the inability to procure an experienced lawyer with so little funding.
“Lawyers in private practice don’t like to give their time and that is so saddening. That is why we ended up where we had to revisit our own partner – UNICEF – to say that I have this case, would you be interesting in providing funding. We were using two law students from the University of Guyana and a lawyer, but he didn’t have the experience to do a murder case,” Gonsalves said.
He added that the RCC is restating the call for speedy trials, especially in instances where there is insufficient evidence, and are asking the police to ensure that they remind young offenders that they have a right to legal representation.
“The children who commit crimes in Guyana are not necessarily deviants or delinquents, and in most cases they are responding to multidimensional poverty. There is a need for a more structured and permanent solution and it’s now left to the state apparatus to fix the problem,” Panday added. (Dhanash Ramroop)