Backlog at Appeal Court a “significant problem” – Attorney General
The People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) Government intends to confront the large delays and backlogs across the judicial system, especially at the Court of Appeal, where the situation, according to Attorney General Anil Nandlall, is a “significant problem.”
Nandlall made this disclosure during his weekly programme, “Issues in the News.”
For close to two decades, the Attorney General reminded, the backlog of cases has “characterised” the Judiciary. He noted that the delay has resulted in massive miscarriages of justice, and although the backlog has been cleared in the civil division of the High Court, there remains stagnation in the Criminal Assizes, the Court of Appeal, and the Magistrates’ Courts.
“But, in my view, the Court of Appeal remains a significant problem, and we have to work on getting that backlog reduced in the same way that we tackled the backlog in the High Court,” Nandlall asserted.
The previous backlog, he added, “virtually brought the wheels of justice in this country to a standstill in civil cases, and it caused persons in the criminal justice system to spend years and years in prison, incarcerated sometimes for offences they were later found not guilty of.”
As the backlog grew, the judiciary needed to adopt ways of becoming more efficient. Recognising this as far back as since 2006, Nandlall said, the previous PPP/C Government and the judiciary joined hands in a series of mechanisms, strategies and undertakings to tackle this issue head-on.
According to the Attorney General, immeasurable measures were implemented.
Among them he outlined were judges being paid separately and overtime to deal with the backlog of cases, more judges being appointed, mediation and conciliation being introduced, specialised courts being established, and a series of legislation being passed to introduce new measures designed to alleviate the backlog and to add speed to the sloth in the system.
There was also the promulgation of new rules of court, and the introduction of electronic equipment to record the testimonies of witnesses.
“…having had discussions with the judiciary and the practising Bar, the backlog which burdened the High Court for so many years has now disappeared finally. We have succeeded in removing that backlog,” he noted.
Against this backdrop, he praised many judges, Chancellors of the Judiciary, Chief Justices, past Finance Ministers and Attorneys General who helped in making this a reality. He explained that the backlog was a national problem which fundamentally affected the judiciary.
But not only that, according to the Attorney General, “It caused a loss of confidence in investors, it caused economic stagnation, it caused grave financial loss to individuals, companies and the State.”
He said, “The cases that are now in the system are cases that are flowing and moving every day. Hopefully, we will not go back to that backlog, we have to continue to be innovative.”
With this problem out of the way, Nandlall disclosed, dedicated efforts are needed to address the backlog at the Court of Appeal. He noted that this is very important, as there is no backlog at the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ).
“So, when a case finishes in the High Court, it takes a tremendously long time for the appeal to be heard at the appellate court level. Once it is heard at the appellate court level, then it moves on to the CCJ, where it is disposed of fairly quickly. The bottleneck is at the Court of Appeal, and once that drain is clogged, then the fact that the High Court is now freed up makes no sense, because you still have a clogging in the system coming from the Court of Appeal,” he explained.
The Attorney General said that the recent establishment of Container Courts will bring immeasurable speed to the system. The January 2021 Demerara Criminal Assizes is currently in progress. With a whopping 342 cases listed to be heard, with the majority concerning murder and sexual offences, only three judges have been rostered to sit.
For far too long, accused persons, especially those on remand for murder, have complained about the delays in the hearing of their preliminary inquiry trials. Those convicted of murder have also vented frustrations at having to wait five years or even more before their appeals are heard. This, they all contend, infringes on their constitutional right to a fair hearing within a reasonable time, as guaranteed under Article 144 of the Constitution of Guyana.
Shortage of judges
The findings of a recent United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report highlighted that backlog in cases that have been plaguing the criminal justice system for years is because there is, among other things, a shortage of judges.
The report noted that while there is no shortage of criminal attorneys-at-law, there are only 14 of the expected 20 High Court Judges, and three of the expected five Court of Appeal Judges.
“If the present cadre of judges is not increased, then the issue of backlogs will not be addressed. It is recommended that further options for increasing the human resource capacity, including for judicial legal research assistants, judges, prosecutors, and trained mediators, be explored,” the report stated.
Whilst the assignment of temporary judges has been used in the past in the Court of Appeal, this is not seen as a permanent solution, the report further noted. Rafiq Khan, SC, and Dr Christopher Bulkan were the last two temporary judges to be appointed to the Court of Appeal. They were appointed to the post in January and February 2018 respectively.
President of the Guyana Bar Association, Attorney-at-Law Teni Housty, had previously told Guyana Times that the functions of the Court of Appeal were accelerated with the appointment of the two temporary judges.
The life of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC), the constitutional body responsible for the appointment of judges, except for the Chancellor of the Judiciary and the Chief Justice, expired in 2017.
Shortly after the PPP/C Government took office in August 2020, Nandlall announced that Government was working to swiftly reconvene the JSC, as there have been mounting calls for the appointment of more judges.
Nandlall had blazed the previous APNU/AFC Government, which he called out for deliberately failing to appoint key constitutional agencies, in particular the JSC. He said this demonstrated that the Coalition did not understand how a democratic society should function.
In a previous interview with this publication, Guyana Bar Association President Teni Housty underscored that the administration of justice is being hindered due to the absence of the JSC, and expressed hope that the body would be reconvened promptly.