Full Court pays tribute to late legal stalwart, Justice Desiree Bernard

– Justice Bernard left a lasting legacy for future generations of lawyers, especially women – AG

The memorialization of late Justice Desiree Patricia Bernard continued on Wednesday when the full Bench of the Supreme Court of Judicature met to pay tribute and recognize her achievements, described by acting Chief Justice Roxanne George as “immortal.”

Justice, Desiree Bernard

During the special sitting, Justice George in her tribute reflected on the late Justice Bernard and her illustrious career. She also cited Justice Albie Sachs, a former Judge on South Africa’s Constitutional Court, in making the point that Justice Bernard lived a fulfilled life whose legacy will remain immortal.
“Justice Bernard will be remembered and will continue to be revered as a woman most learned in the law. This is another occasion in which I quote Justice Albie Sachs of South Africa, who said ‘death is more universal than life. Everyone dies, but not everyone lives.”
“Justice Bernard truly lived in every sense of the word. I’ve also heard it said that what we have done for ourselves alone dies with us. What we have done for others in the world remains immortal. We thank God for her life. For what Justice Bernard achieved and did, will indeed remain immortal,” George said.
Meanwhile, Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs Anil Nandall, SC., also cited Justice Bernard’s many achievements from her establishment of organizations to champion the rights of women in Guyana and the Caribbean, to the very real impact she had on legislation protecting the rights of the most vulnerable in society.
“In 1981 the government of Guyana appointed Justice Bernard as the Chairperson of the Committee appointed to examine the laws of Guyana and make recommendations for the implementation of the provisions of Articles 29 and 30 of the Constitution of Guyana, which provides for equality of men and women. The committee was also charged with making recommendations to reform the laws on children.”
“Through Justice Bernard’s stewardship, this committee produced key pieces of legislation. For instance, the children born out of wedlock, removal of Discrimination Act 1983. This led to amendments of the Evidence Act, the Civil Law Act, the Infancy Act, the Legitimacy Act, and the Maintenance Act, to remove the distinction in the various provisions, between children born in and out of wedlock. Consequently, the Act was repealed,” Nandlall recounted.

Further achievements
Nandlall also noted that due to the recommendations of the committee, three important pieces of legislation were enacted in 1990, including the Married Person Property (Amendment) Act, the Family Dependent Provisions Act, and the Equal Rights Act.
“Because of her expertise and leadership on human rights, Justice Bernard in 1982 was elected a member of the United Nations Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women. This body comprised 23 independent experts, that monitored implementation of the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women.”
Nandlall also stated that Justice Bernard is the recipient of national awards, as well as awards from the University of Guyana and an honorary doctorate from the University of the West Indies. Additionally, he pointed to Justice Bernard’s extensive publication credits.
“No one can deny that Justice Desiree Bernard has left a lasting legacy for future generations of lawyers, especially women, to emulate. She came from humble beginnings and through hard work, shattered the gas ceiling and paved the way for other women to participate in a male-dominated arena,” the AG added.
During her long and distinguished career, Justice Bernard held memberships in various regional and international organizations, 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 the 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 presented many scholarly papers 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 the development and practice of law, Justice Bernard had 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.
In February 2011, she was appointed a Judge of the Inter-American Development Bank Administrative Tribunal based in Washington, DC, USA. (G-3)