Chief Justice grills GECOM’s lawyer on disenfranchisement of Guyanese

Legal challenges to H2H Registration

Chief Justice (ag) Roxane George on Friday commenced the hearing of submissions from the five parties on the three consolidated cases relating to the Guyana Elections Commissions (GECOM).

Attorney Anil Nandlall

These cases stem from proceedings filed by chartered accountant and Attorney Christopher Ram challenging the conduction of House-to-House Registration. Attorney General (AG) Basil Williams subsequently filed an application seeking to have the High Court dismiss Ram’s challenge, while a case was filed on behalf of GECOM’s Chief Elections Officer Keith Lowenfield for the Chief Justice to recuse herself from hearing the case.
At Friday’s hearing of the substantive matter challenging the registration exercise, Justice George grilled GECOM’s lawyer, Roysdale Forde, over the conduct of the exercise and how it will affect citizens.

Chief Justice (ag) Roxanne George

Prior to this, however, Attorney-at-Law Anil Nandlall— a leading member of the legal team representing Ram— argued that the conduct of House-to-House Registration will jeopardise the holding of early elections within the timeframe contemplated by the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) and provisions of Articles 106 (6) and (7) of the Constitution which state that the Cabinet including the President, shall resign and call elections within three months – which the Opposition contends is September 18— that is, three months from the CCJ’s June 18 ruling validating the December passage of the No-Confidence Motion.
In response, however, Attorney Forde argued that the application to stop the ongoing House-to-House exercise is “unconstitutional”. He pointed out that there is nothing in Ram’s application to show that the registration is “unreasonable” and further, nothing to indicate the unconstitutionality of the exercise in relation to what the CCJ ruled.

Attorney Roysdale Forde

But Nandlall, a former Attorney General, pointed out to the Court that the new registration exercise would disenfranchise Guyanese. This, he noted, is so since the Constitution does not provide residency as a qualification to vote, meaning that if persons are not home – whether out of the country or in another part of the country – when the registration is going on, then they will be taken off the new voters’ list, and thus, unable to vote at the upcoming elections. Added to this, he highlighted the fact that the current National Register of Registrants Database (NNRD) would be discarded upon the conclusion of the House-to-House exercise and a new database would be created when there are no provisions for this.
According to Nandlall, it is illegal to whimsically take persons off of the voters’ list and unconstitutional to deny them their right to vote.
In his submissions on behalf of the Elections Commission, the Chief Justice questioned Forde on the removal of persons from the voters’ list. She warned that they need to be “very careful” when taking someone off the list in light of provisions of the National Registration Act (NRA), since the law says GECOM cannot remove citizens from the list on an ad hoc basis. In fact, she agreed with Nandlall that there is no such provision for the scrapping of the NRRD.
Justice George went on to ask what will become of citizens who are not at home at the time of the registration. She noted that in addition to persons who may be out of the jurisdiction, there are Guyanese who leave their official residence to work in another part of the country, such as the hinterland; questioning the GECOM lawyer whether these persons will have to come out to the coastland just to register and then return to work.
Noting that there is nowhere to get around the letter of the Constitution, Forde told the Court that these persons can have their names included in the list during the Claims and Objections period that is catered for at the end of the House-to-House exercise.
But the Chief Justice pointed out that the House-to-House Registration was established because persons were not going to the GECOM offices to get registered, something which the AG’s legal team highlighted in their affidavit. She further stated that those persons may not even know that they were left off the list.
However, speaking with reporters in the corridors of the High Court on Friday, Nandlall posited that there are a lot of misconceptions about the matters.
“The lawyers are speaking about House-to-House verification, lawyers are quoting from sections of the law that deal with preparation of an electoral register and how you get people on the OLE (Official List of Electors) and PLE (Preliminary List of Electors), but we are not dealing with that here. We are dealing, basically here, with the registration process,” he stated.
“Significantly, that registration process cannot be completed for the holding of elections within the timeframe. We are already on borrowed time… the time for holding elections was 21st of March 2019 – that has long gone and the Leader of the Opposition has signalled repeatedly that we are not going to go back to Parliament to get an extension. So that option is not available,” Nandlall noted, adding that “A court of law must do that which is necessary to bring back Guyana to constitutional track, to constitutional rule.”
According to the former AG, the Court can do this by ordering that elections be held within the earliest possible time and GECOM must be prepared for those polls.
Meanwhile, earlier during Friday’s hearing, the Solicitor General, Nigel Hawke, argued the case filed by AG Williams asking the court to throw out Ram’s challenge since it raises issues already ventilated by the CCJ.
But in response, Nandlall told the Court that the issues are “radically different”. He added that the application filed by the AG is without merit and as such, the court should dismiss it.
With regard to the application to have the Chief Justice recuse herself from the matters, which were filed by Trinidadian Senior Counsel Stanley Marcus on behalf of Lowenfield, President of the Guyana Bar Association (GBA) Teni Housty argued that there was no evidence to show that the Court is biased.
Adding to this, Nandlall told the Court that the application makes “reckless allegations” against the court. He added that the case is “frivolous” and “vexatious”, and should be thrown out.
The matter was adjourned to Monday for submissions by the Attorney General, but not before the Court heard from GECOM’s lawyer, SC Marcus.