– PNCR, AFC condemn 21st century legislation
The Evidence (Amendment) Bill that was passed in the National Assembly, yesterday, was described as putting Guyana into the 21st century by Minister of Human Services and Social Security, Priya Manickchand, who is also a qualified attorney-at-law, but condemned by the Alliance for Change as unconstitutional.
The Bill was also criticised by the main opposition party, the People’s National Congress Reform, which described it as giving the State carte blanche provisions to have the heavy hand of the State brought on a person.
The Bill was presented to the House by Minister of Legal Affairs, Doodnauth Singh, who also holds the post of Attorney General of Guyana. The Legal Affairs Minister said that the legislation was innovative and seeks to capitalise on the use of technology in expediting court procedures such as trials and bail hearings, among others.
The legislation, once assented to by the President, will for the first time in Guyana’s history, allow a witness or accused to present evidence using Audio/Video (AV) links to the court from anywhere in or outside of the country, if deemed necessary by the courts.
It will also have the process referred to as an identification (ID) parade facilitated by means of audio visual links.
Singh, in his presentation of the Bill, told the House that the passage of the Bill will effect greater security for witnesses and also reduce the delays of having to transport prisoners under guard to and from their detention centre, thus minimizing the risk of escapes.
A motion by the Shadow Minister of Legal Affairs, Clarissa Riehl, to have the legislation provide for AV links only if the witness was outside of the country was defeated in the House.
According to Riehl, a worst case scenario of the horrendous nature of the Bill would see possibly an innocent person remanded to prison without ever setting foot in the court room again until he is freed, effectively providing a complete lockdown of persons in detention.
The eminent attorney at law argued to no avail that, in so doing, the rights of a prisoner would be suspended.
She also explained that for a prisoner to have his court appearances facilitated in a room somewhere in the lockups without ever appearing in the court room would result in that person developing a vendetta against society.
Minister Priya Manickchand in defending the legislation said that the legislation was meant to serve the populace.
Division over definition
There was a difference in opinion in the definition of the word ‘presence’ in court, with Manickchand positing that in this day and age/era, presence in court would be defined as the ability for the court and accused to be able to communicate in real time, something that would be achieved with the AV link.
She was adamant that the proposed use of technology did not require the physical presence of the accused in the court room.
Alliance for Change Chairman, Khemraj Ramjattan, differed with his parliamentary colleague on this issue, stating that it was a constitutional right for the accused persons to be present in court for his defense.
“We are in a time when ‘present’ takes a new meaning…present can mean video linking and does not take away the right of anyone,” insists Manickchand.
She commended the legislation, saying that it would reduce the risk of prisoners escaping custody such as case with Jermaine ‘Skinny’ Charles.
In the worst jail break case in history, five hardened criminals escaped from the Camp Street jail and commenced the worst crime wave in the country’s history.
There was also the argument that a lot of time and resource would be saved utilisng the option that the courts would have at its discretion when President Jagdeo ascents to the legislation.
Ramjattan in his presentation also argued that another constitutional violation that the law would impose is the constitutional right to every facility to launch a proper defence. He used the argument of the minimal contact that an attorney will have with his/her client.
He did clarify that his party was supportive of the use of technology in the improvement of the justice system but not at the dilution of the constitution.
There was also the issue of financing the use of AV links. Opposition members argued that there were numerous courts around the country that lacked basic accessories.
According to the opposition, there must be the prioritisng of the spending of resources.
There was also the issue of what was referred to as the watering down of the effectiveness of the ID parade in that all and sundry agreed that the more persons lined up in the ID parade with the accused, the more accurate the identification.
The legislation mandates a minimum of four persons and, according to Singh, the reason for that was the fact that finding seven or eight persons was difficult.
Shadow Minister of Home Affairs Deborah Backer told the house that the use of AV links in Guyana currently would create a logistical nightmare, especially at the prisons, pointing to the fact that on any given day there are dozens of persons at the jails who have to make appearances before the courts.
She questioned how much of the necessary equipment would be installed at the prisons and at courts.
She also said that while her party was supportive of the era of the information age, there must be a prioritising of spending of resources.
The legislation, despite the staunch arguments against it, was successfully passed in the National Assembly, paving the way for courts in Guyana to have for the first time evidence tendered by use of cameras and microphones from persons in or outside of Guyana, including people in the jail.
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