Tribute to late Justice (Retired) Desiree Bernard: Justice Bernard was a trailblazer who paved the way for women to soar in the legal fraternity – CCJ, Guyana Supreme Court

In a tribute to the late Justice (Retired) Désirée Bernard who passed away on March 2, 2024, at her residence in Trinidad and Tobago, the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) on Thursday held a Special Full Court Sitting to reflect on the life and work of the stalwart.
The prestige sitting saw the participation of legal fraternities including the Organisation of Commonwealth Caribbean Bar Associations (OCCBA); the Supreme Court of the Judicature of Guyana; the Guyana Bar Association and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, among others.
Many used the event to reflect on the success of Justice Bernard and shared personal experiences. One such person was the President of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), Justice Adrian Saunders, who served on many executive bodies with the late Justice.
During his remarks, Saunders shared many colourful stories about his encounters with the late Justice, whom he noted was not just a colleague but a dear and encouraging friend.
“Several decades before the inauguration of the Caribbean Court of Justice, she was championing the move for the Region to establish its own final court of appeal. In her calm and understated manner, she was what I would describe as a Caribbean nationalist, an ardent supporter of the development of a Caribbean jurisprudence that was in her words both peculiar to our needs, culture, traditions and regional objectives.”
In her remarks, Chancellor of the Judiciary (ag), Justice Yonette Cummings-Edwards expressed that Guyana’s legal fraternity would miss this daughter of the soil dearly.
According to Justice Cummings, Bernard was a trailblazer and paved the way for women to join and excel in the legal fraternity, some of whom she mentored, especially lawyers and judicial officers.
In this regard, Justice Cummings expressed that Bernard’s many accomplishments, passion for the law, and contribution to the bar were legendary and would be cherished.
“Justice Bernard nurtured and mentored young counsel not only in the law but in decorum, in conduct and etiquette at the Bar and generally on life.
“Today in Guyana the top judicial positions of Chancellor, Chief Justice, Registrar, Deputy Registrar, and Chief Magistrate are all held by women. We are indeed touched and humbled at the same time to be part of that history that Justice Bernard prognosticated. I can safely say that Justice Bernard did not have a sense of having arrived and sitting on one’s laurel and she worked hard, perhaps 10 times harder than her male counterparts,” Justice Cummings stated.
Justice Bernard was, in February 2023, conferred with an Honorary Doctor of Letters by the University of Guyana for her distinguished service to the legal system and public service. She is often referred to as the first female to break glass ceilings in the field of law.
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, but was presented to her in March 2023 in Trinidad.
Justice Bernard read for a Bachelor of Laws at the University of London and graduated with honours in 1963. After qualifying as a solicitor in 1964, she embarked on private practice 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).
Justice Bernard next established several professional “firsts” in 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 the Commonwealth Caribbean (1996); and the first female Chancellor of the Judiciary of Guyana and in the Commonwealth Caribbean (2001).
She took the oath of office as a Judge of the CCJ at the court’s inauguration ceremony on Saturday, April 16, 2005.
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 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 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 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.