Govt. ‘stranglehold’ on Judiciary attracts bitter debate
- ‘put up’ with substantial amendment or ‘shut up’ - AG
By Gary Eleazar
The autonomy of the local judiciary and its independence from political control by the executive
branch of government on Thursday evening came into focus when A Partnership for National Unity (APNU)’s motion, calling on the House to ensure that the judiciary receives funding directly from the Consolidated Fund came up for debate.
The motion was piloted by APNU’s point man on finance, Carl Greenidge. “The situation we find ourselves in is frustrating…It flies in face of the Guyana Constitution”.
He was speaking to the fact that the Supreme Court is a Budget Agency under the schedule of Estimates in the Budget and receives its funds through this mechanism. The money is released upon approval by the Minister and Legislature.
Greenidge suggested that there are some entities in Guyana that enjoy certain privileges in the constitution but are “frustrated.”
He said that the motion is simply asking for that specific privilege for the Judiciary to be enshrined and he suggests that his reason for this course of action is to ensure that the ‘rule of law’ and the ‘separation of powers’ are upheld.
Greenidge pointed to the Constitution of Guyana, which he argues, enshrines that “all persons presiding over courts shall exercise their function independently of the control and direction of any other person or authority and shall be free and independent from political, executive, and any other form of direction and control.”
Greenidge said that by making the Supreme Court a Budget Agency, the administration has made the entity subordinate to
the Legislative and Executive branches of Government.
He suggested that overall financial guidelines set by Government will apply. The Judiciary needs to have a sum en bloc, and not at the whims of the government or legislature where changes can affect the capacity of the entity.
Muzzling a judiciary can take many forms, according to Greenidge. But this was a point strenuously objected to by the government spokesperson on Legal Affairs, Anil Nandlall, who called for Greenidge to withdraw the “attack.”
Greenidge in his defence said that he was making no specific reference, but was merely looking to point out that the mechanisms at work could hold ranks in the judiciary under ransom.
“What we are proposing is that the Constitution is supreme. Delete the judiciary from the schedule of estimates,” he adamantly proposed.
Finance Minister Dr Ashni Singh pointed to the fact that the motion was similar to others proposed by Greenidge, but he had thought that they would have been withdrawn altogether.
He pointed to the talks which were held at the Office of the President between APNU, the Alliance for Change and the government. He said that they were all on the agenda for discussion.
”There was no lack of clarity on these issues…we discussed the constitutional matters,” said Dr Singh, who added also that it was agreed that the list of matters would be subject to further study.
He said that even Greenidge had acceded to the fact that the matters needed to be subjected to further study and could possibly be deferred to the Constitutional Standing Committee of Parliament.
“This is a body that has a mandate for continuous work and would be the appropriate place to deal with the matters at hand. There can be no doubt that this matter is at best referred to the Standing Committee on Constitutional Reform and this was agreed on in the multi-party talks,” Dr Singh explained.
He said that notwithstanding this agreement with Government, Greenidge still proceeded with the motion. “I don’t know how to interpret this. Is this a reneging on the agreement when we met?”
This, he noted, was done bypassing any need for a study and calls for definitive measures, and as such, he urged Greenidge to withdraw the motion.
House Speaker Raphael Trotman interjected that Thursday evening’s exercise would merely yield a declaratory statement, but cannot alter the Constitution.
This, he said, would require a two-thirds majority vote in the House. But Greenidge sought to explain that his motion was merely looking to amend the Fiscal Management and Accountability Act and not the Constitution of Guyana.
Alliance for Change Chairman Khemraj Ramjattan, supporting the motion, said that it is but a correction to an aberration. Ramjattan argued that the Judiciary can also be affected negatively by administrative arrangement not just adjudicatory levels.
At the Administrative level, Ramjattan said that “the executive of the day meddling with the financial resources of that branch can damage its independence”. He said that the motion is intended to “cure that potential damage and ensure that which is provided for in the Constitution, where all courts shall be autonomous and funded through a direct charge from the Consolidated Fund.”
Ramjattan was adamant that the opposition is not pushing for unfettered access to the Consolidated Fund by the Judiciary, saying that the Constitution will determine the expenditure limits.
Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs, Anil Nandlall, whilst concurring with Greenidge that the motion raises a matter of crucial importance, namely the judiciary and its independence, referred to past actions by the People’s National Congress (PNC).
He said that the current administration is committed to ensuring that the Judiciary “remains pure, independent and uncontaminated by any extraneous influence including political”.
Nandlall suggested that the ruling administration is very aware of the history that the Judiciary has been brought to bear.
He drew reference to the flag of the PNC flying on the apex of the judiciary and suggested that there are several other attempts documented that point to interference.
The Legal Affairs Minister said that, “we are not unaware of the pressure brought to bear on the judiciary, so those now crusading as protagonists of judicial impartiality must know that they are the ones who contaminated the judiciary by politics.
“They used the judiciary as a political weapon, jailing several of our leaders, so we are aware of the importance of the independence of the judiciary.”
Nandlall informed the House that “since we came into power, initiatives have been taken to ensure that the damage to the judiciary has been reversed. We have been reversing it step by step.”