A woman of many firsts: Fmr Chancellor Justice Désirée Bernard a Caribbean icon – CCJ President
For her distinguished service to the legal system and public service, former Chancellor of the Judiciary of Guyana, Justice Désirée Patricia Bernard, who is often referred to as the first female to break glass ceilings in the law, was in February conferred with an honorary Doctor of Letters by the University of Guyana (UG).
The conferral ceremony took place in Trinidad and Tobago, where Justice Bernard, 84, a native of Guyana, now resides. It was also the first time the university conferred an honorary degree in that country.
The honorary degree was initially conferred on Justice Bernard in absentia in December 2022 when the university held a convocation ceremony for its Tain, Berbice campus.
Justice Bernard is the only person nominated four times for an honorary degree at the university.
After being presented her certificate, Justice Bernard made brief remarks in which she thanked everyone who played a part in arranging the visit to the twin-island republic.
“I appreciate it and I thank you extremely much for being here. I have never before seen myself in something which just happened.”
President of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), Justice Adrian Saunders, who made brief comments at the ceremony, reflected on the launch of the regional court in 2005 and Justice Bernard being the lone female Judge there.
“She brought to the court [the CCJ] the grace, the patience, the dignity, apart from the scholarship that really enhanced the court in several respects,” said Justice Saunders who went on to describe Justice Bernard as a “Caribbean icon”.
According to the St Vincent and the Grenadines jurist, Justice Bernard has inspired many people, both as a lawyer, as a Judge, and through her work with organisations, including the Caribbean Bar Association and the Caribbean Association of Women Judges.
“Throughout the Region, I have spoken with several women in particular who have said to me how much they have been inspired by Desiree Bernard. There is a tremendous amount that we have to credit Justice Bernard with. This ceremony is just another of the very many accolades that have been bestowed on her.”
UG’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Paloma Mohamed shared that Justice Bernard, as a daughter of Guyana and the wider Caribbean, has been more than exemplary during her long legal career. She was hailed as a “noble daughter of Guyana” by UG’s Chancellor Professor Edward Greene.
Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, Dr Marjorie Thorpe said that although a lot has been said about Justice Bernard’s scholarship and her professional accomplishments, she never boasts, and to her, she is one of the most gracious and humbled friends one could have.
Also making tributes at the event were CCJ Judge Maureen Rajnauth-Lee, Justice Charmaine Pemberton of the Supreme Court of Trinidad and Tobago, and Justice Bernard’s close friends.
Justice Bernard read for a Bachelor of Laws (Hons) at the University of London, graduating in 1963. After qualifying as a solicitor in 1964, she embarked on private practice in the Supreme Court of Guyana from 1965 to 1980.
During that period, she was appointed a Magistrate (1970), Commissioner of Oaths & Notary Public (1976), and was admitted to the English Roll of Solicitors (1977).
Next, Justice Bernard established several professional “firsts,” being appointed the first female High Court Judge of the Supreme Court of Guyana (1980); the first female Justice of Appeal (1992); the first female Chief Justice of Guyana and in the Commonwealth Caribbean (1996); and the first female Chancellor of the Judiciary of Guyana and in the Commonwealth Caribbean (2001).
On Saturday, April 16, 2005, she took the oath of office as a Judge of the CCJ at the court’s inauguration ceremony.
During her long and distinguished career, Justice Bernard held memberships in various regional and international organisations, having been the founding Secretary of the Caribbean Women’s Association (CARIWA 1970-1974); first President of the Organisation of Commonwealth Caribbean Bar Associations (OCCBA 1976); member and Chair of the Caribbean Steering Committee for Women’s Affairs, later established as the Women & Development Unit of University of the West Indies (WAND – 1978).
Internationally, she served as both rapporteur (1982-1984) and Chair (1985-1989) of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women during her membership, which ran from 1982 to 1998.
Moreover, she has presented many scholarly papers at and participated in numerous international seminars and colloquia both regionally and internationally on a variety of subjects relating to the law, gender, and other matters of public interest.
For her exceptional contribution to the improvement of the status of women and to the development and practice of law, Justice Bernard has received several awards, the most notable being the Cacique Crown of Honour, and the Order of Roraima, Guyana’s third and second-highest national awards, respectively.
In July 2005, this honourable Judge was awarded the Caricom Triennial Award for Women. She was awarded the degree of Doctor of Laws (honoris causa) by the University of the West Indies in November 2007. And in February 2011, she was appointed a Judge of the Inter-American Development Bank Administrative Tribunal, based in Washington, DC, USA.