Towards the ending of December and in keeping with the constitutional requirement, President David Granger wrote to Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo proposing Chief Justice of Belize, Kenneth Benjamin as the next Chancellor of the Judiciary. The two leaders have since met and Mr Jagdeo requested a month for the consideration of the nominee and President Granger agreed. It has also been proposed that the current acting Chancellor, Justice Yonette Cummings-Edwards be the substantive Chief Justice.
That Guyana has not had a confirmed Chancellor or Chief Justice for over a decade has become a matter of regional concern and remonstration as should be the case.
Delivering the keynote address at the 37th Annual Bar Dinner in November last year, President of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) Sir Dennis Byron bemoaned the inability of successive presidents and opposition leaders to agree on appointing a substantive Chancellor of the Judiciary and warned that prolonged acting appointments pose a genuine “risk” to the promise to citizens of an independent and impartial judiciary.
“With the passage of 12 years the undesirability of further delay could no longer be controversial. This is a very serious issue because attacking the problems of delay and all other issues that need reform requires strong leadership,” Sir Dennis said. “It is simply obvious that a leader who is not appointed is under a disadvantage, and criticisms of the sector need to be received with the knowledge of the impediment that is placed on the leadership of the institution, an impediment which the Constitution specifically frowns on,” he added.
The President and the Opposition Leader now have before them the weighty task of forming a consensus on the top two appointments to the judiciary given the importance of ensuring stability and removing any latent grounds for undermining this branch of government.
When he entered office in 2015, President Granger embarked on his own methodology for identifying candidates which he had proposed while in opposition but which had not found favour with then President Ramotar. In this process, the two top positions were advertised here and in the Anglophone Caribbean. Then, a panel of jurists comprising retired justices Claudette Singh and James Patterson and Dr Harold Lutchman interviewed the interested applicants and later made recommendations to the President.
Around the period in which the panel of jurists was conducting its work, it came to be reported in the local media that Justice Benjamin had come under pressure in Belize over backlogged decisions in his court.
The issue had caused the Bar Association of Belize to consider calling for his resignation. According to a report in the Amandala newspaper Justice Benjamin had delays dating back to the first year of his appointment in 2011. The cases in question ranged from personal injury cases to banking matters, including a case involving a challenge to the sale of shares in Belize Telemedia Limited to the Belize Social Security Board. Towards the end of last year it was reported that though Justice Benjamin had committed to delivering 32 of the delayed decisions by December 15, he might only be able hand down 22 of them.
In their interviewing of the candidates, the panel of jurists found nothing to dissuade them from recommending Justice Benjamin to President Granger and he in turn discerned nothing untoward and recommended to Mr Jagdeo, the consideration of the judge as the most suitable candidate for chancellor.
There may well be a variety of good reasons for the backlogged decisions by Justice Benjamin in Belize ranging from the large amount of cases being heard before the court, poor administration within the court and panels with multiple judges usually taking longer to write decisions. Whatever the reasons in the Belize jurisdiction, the average litigant here wants to be assured of the handing down of timely decisions. The dispensing of justice in an efficient manner encompasses the timely delivery of judgments. Whoever accedes to the highest position in the judiciary must be beyond reproach on the matter of the delivery of judgment as he or she will be setting the pace for all of the other judges.
For periods here, the judiciary has come under pressure over delayed decisions and it has remained a matter under discussion. Former Chief Justice Chang had set a positive record during his tenure with the efficient delivery of written judgments in a number of important cases and the situation has now generally improved.
The primacy of the timely delivery of decisions is referred to in the Constitution at article 197(3) and in 2009, the Jagdeo administration introduced to unanimous approval legislation setting time limits for the delivery of judgments in light of the large number that was backlogged.
It is vital in the process that ensues that both of the leaders who will make the final decision on the Chancellor are convinced that there nothing in the background of any of the candidates that would give rise to concern about seminal matters such as the timely delivery of decisions.