Coordinating Committee needed to tackle judicial backlog – AG
… part-time judges, voice recording systems still in pipeline
The establishment of a special ‘coordinating committee’, comprising representatives of the judicial system is
being touted as the answer to Guyana’s decades-old judicial backlog.
This committee, according to Attorney General and Legal Affairs Minister Basil Williams, will meet regularly and give directions to varying offices in order to improve management of the various cases and ultimately reduce the mounting accumulation of cases, which is said to be mainly responsible for overcrowding of the country’s prisons.
During a recent news conference, Minister Williams explained that there needs to be a holistic approach in dealing with the judicial backlogs, and the introduction of such a committee, along with other measures that are currently underway, the problem should be effectively addressed.
“This entire legal system basically needs to be coordinated because what happens on one end affects the other. So we cannot resolve the prison issue unless we deal with the Police Superintendent… he deploys prosecutors… if they’re not properly supervised they can be responsible for a lot of backlog.
You need to have a committee so that persons representing all aspects of the justice system would sit regularly and coordinate problems that they would understand… Magistrates should know that they should not remand people on offences that are ‘bail-able’ because you are going to overcrowd the prisons unnecessarily,” Williams posited.
As part of the efforts to address the age-old issue of backlog of cases, legislation was enacted introducing committal proceedings to fast-track preliminary inquiries. At the Magistrate’s Court, an accused had to wait four to five years for his trial to be completed then a similar period before a judge and jury in the High Court, all the while languishing in prison.
According to the Attorney General, when the paper committals were introduced, magistrates started applying them, but it was recognised that you were basically transferring the problem from the Magistrate’s Court to the High Court.
The paper committal proceedings saw the prosecutor handing over the evidence against the accused to his attorney. If, after examination, it was determined that a prima facie (based on the first impression) case existed, in the interest of not wasting the court’s time, parties then consented to committing the accused to stand trial in the High Court.
“It meant that trials kept climbing and the figures kept increasing rapidly… a judge would take about three to four trials per session which takes three months… so we still have that problem right now and it has to be addressed,” Williams pointed out.
Williams disclosed that moves are afoot to seek funding to install voice recording systems in the criminal courts (Magistrates Courts and High Courts) in an effort to speed up trials and ultimately reduce the backlogs.
Currently, judges have to take hand-written evidence during hearings.
“One of the things to determine if the witness is speaking the truth is that they look at the witness and judge the demeanour and veracity… how does the judge get to do that when they are busy writing down,” the Attorney General explained.
He disclosed that US$327,000 is budgeted for this undertaking.
Under the previous administration, the voice recording systems were installed in the Court of Appeal, the Courts of the Chief Justice and the Commercial Court of the High Court.
The Legal Affairs Ministry, under the stewardship of Attorney Anil Nandlall, had intended to replicate the concept in the other courts to start the process of transformational change in the speed of litigation in Guyana.
Another initiative aimed at addressing the problem is the introduction of part-time judges, Williams indicated.
The ministry has allocated a budgetary estimate of US$49,020 to employ six part-time judges for a six-month period.
According to the Attorney General, the exercise is funded by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and it is still in the pipelines.
“Once they approve the sums, we will start incurring expenses,” Minister Williams stated.
The reintroduction of night courts is another measure on the cards to tackle the issue of backlog of cases.
Approximately $25 million was allocated to facilitate night court sessions.
Initial reports had suggested that there would be five temporary Magistrates appointed to handle the night court.
Presently, Magistrates open their courts from 09:00h and close at 14:00h, Monday to Friday.
According to reports, the night courts would be opened from 16:00h to 20:00h, Monday to Friday.
Acting Chancellor of the Judiciary, Justice Carl Singh had suggested that this initiative would last for six months.
Guyana has partnered with the IDB to implement the New Justice Sector Programme which is designed to consolidate justice sector improvements.
The programme will see the establishment of a Law Revision Office and a revision of Guyana’s laws, updating them to 2015.
Additionally, a Permanent Law Reform Commission with a Secretariat will focus on continuously examining Guyana’s laws and making recommendations on areas of reform.
Judges, magistrates and prosecutors will also be trained in sentencing and the writing of decisions as part of a holistic approach to ensure efficiency within the judicial sector.