House approves 10-year-old legislation – MPs divided
By Gary Eleazar
A decade-old piece of legislation was yesterday approved, despite a divided house.
The Bill, namely the Summary Jurisdiction (Lay Magistrates) Bill was piloted by Minister of Legal Affairs and Attorney General, Charles Ramson.
The Minister yesterday debunked the opposition arguments in the House yesterday as lacking merit and bordering on ridiculous.
Ramson in his opening arguments on the legislation told the House that the Bill was crafted in the late 1990s under the vision and wisdom of the late Cheddi Jagan for a less formal system of the administration of justice at the lowest level of litigation.
He noted that the situation has become even more urgent for the creation of Lay Magistrate Courts given the significant backlog of cases.
The Minister also took to task what he called misinformation in the public that there was need for greater consultation given that when the Bill was crafted there was widespread consultation, “unless we are seeking to reinvent the wheel.”
“The current crop of Magistrates seems to have a self-inflicted wound as it relates to the Government approach to the House that will not impinge on their Jurisdiction,” said Ramson.
According to the Attorney General, there are several clauses in the Bill that support his statement, “their complaint would have had some merit if the clauses were not in the Bill.”
He was adamant that the Bill also clearly spelt out the limitations of Lay Magistrates and the role of the Chancellor as it relates to appointments, regulations and disciplinary actions among others.
Deputy Speaker of the House and Shadow Legal Affairs Minister, Clarissa Riehl, in her opening arguments, was quick to question the role of the Chancellor and the Judicial Service Commission.
She noted too that the Bill was a replica of that which was tabled in 1999, was read, and then disappeared.
Riehl pointed out that if the Government was that interested in establishing a Lay Magistrate Court, then they had a decade to better what was objected to in 1999.
According to Riehl, there was not even a study conducted as to the benefits and possible consequences of the concept and furthermore, to the best of her knowledge, there was no consultation, “is it worth the expense…are we using taxpayers money wisely?”
She continued by saying, “If you pick up a Bill out of the dustbin 10 years later, then there should at least be consultations.”
Riehl also questioned whether at this point in time it would not have been better and cost effective to increase the current compliment of Magistrates.
According to Riehl, ever since the passage of the Administration of Justice Act in 1978 the magistracy has been bogged down with a backlog given their increased responsibility.
She also questioned the role of the Chancellor in the appointment of Clerks for the lay court, saying that the clause started out constructively, requesting qualified individuals, but was watered down ending with, “or any persons deemed fit by the Chancellor.”
All in all she said that her party supported the idea, in principle, but could not support the Bill in its current form and requested that the Bill be referred to a Special Select Committee.
Alliance For Change Leader Raphael Trotman, who also supported the piece of legislation in principle, could not support the legislation as drafted and also requested that it be deferred to a Special Select Committee.
He said that his party would support any initiative that comprehensively seeks to reform the Judiciary, but the Bill would have changed the landscape completely, as such there should have been consultations, which is enshrined in the Constitution of Guyana.
Trotman also pointed to the much touted Justice Reform Strategy which he said makes no mention of Lay Magistrates.
PPP backbencher and eminent Attorney-at-Law Anil Nandlall who spoke in the House in defence of the Bill said that the appointment of lay magistrates in Guyana has been mooted and publicly demanded for a number of years, so much so, that in 1999, it was laid before and debated by the House.
“It was however never enacted. In recent times, the call for lay magistrates has been resuscitated.”
According to Nandlall, he was fortunate to have been part of several outreach programmes in Berbice, Essequibo and Demerara, and in many instances, heard persons calling for the appointment of lay magistrates. “In my humble view, the appointment of lay magistrates will bring with it many important benefits and advantages to the administration of justice.”
He noted that it is not only the responsibility of a government, but its fundamental duty to implement innovative changes that are necessary to bring a halt to the disastrous slide in the speedy administration of Justice that has afflicted the country for far too long.
“This Bill, when enacted, can immediately remove from the Magistrates’ Court throughout this country a few hundred petty cases, thereby allowing Magistrates to deal with the more serious cases. On any given day, almost every Magistrate Court in Georgetown, Demerara, and Essequibo is burdened with hundreds of petty matters.”
Shadow Home Affairs Minister Deborah Backer who also spoke on the Bill said that contrary to the opinion of the Legal Affairs minister, the Bill will impinge on the substantive magistrates.
She pointed to one such clause which stated catered for the scenario where a Lay Magistrate made a ruling that was not enforced.
Under the approved legislation, were this to happen, then the ruling would be deferred to the substantive magistrate who would have to without question enforce the ruling, regardless of not agreeing with the decision.
She also pointed to the recent motion in the National Assembly that was essentially killed by the Government’s majority, which sought to impose community service as a sentence for petty crimes as an alternative rather than that of a custodial sentence which was under the Justice Reform Strategy.
She too emphasized the point that was raised by the other opposition speakers that the legislation was supported in principle, but the impediments contained within the proposed Bill were unacceptable. She also requested that the Bill be deferred to a special committee.
Backer, as did the other opposition speakers, took umbrage to the fact that the appointments would be made by the Chancellor and not the Judicial Service Commission, as well as questioning what would happen in the instance of an appeal, given that under the provisions, the appeal would have to be heard by Judges, all of whom are already tackling their own backlogs.
She also questioned who would be the prosecutors in the Lay Courts, pointing out the fact that the Police Force is already understaffed with respect to prosecutors in the Magistracy.
“Let us fix what we have rather than add a new tier,” urged Backer.
According to the explanatory memorandum accompanying the legislation, the law as regards the present magistrates, remains unchanged. Magistrates and lay magistrates will work side by side in the magisterial districts.
A lay magistrate, once appointed, will have jurisdiction throughout Guyana, and must be fit and proper persons with certain experience. As lay magistrates, they would be protected when acting judicially.
Lay magistrates will be assisted by a clerk, preferably with legal qualifications, and may try any criminal offence triable summarily, if the punishment does not exceed $10,000.
The lay magistrate may also try a civil case where the dispute does not exceed $25,000.
It will be the duty of a lay magistrate to promote reconciliation, and encourage and facilitate the settlement, in an amicable way, of proceedings of common assault and non-felonious offences.
Likewise, in civil cases, the magistrate should promote reconciliation, and encourage and facilitate the settlement of disputes without recourse to litigation.
Under the proposed legislation, a lay magistrate may transfer a case to a magistrate in the same magisterial district where from the nature of the case, the evidence warrants this, and may also adjourn a case as the magistrate sees fit.
The lay magistrates can be assigned to any magisterial district throughout Guyana by the Chancellor.