Jan 03, 2016 News
By Rehanna Ramsay
Newly appointed Chief Justice (Ag) Yonette Cummings-Edwards intends to “fire on all cylinders,” to ensure that work at the Supreme Court is at peak level of performance in 2016.
Justice Cummings-Edwards was sworn in to perform the functions of Chief Justice (Ag) on December 16, last.
Justice Cummings-Edwards was appointed to act after Chief Justice, (Ag) Ian Chang proceeded on pre- retirement leave. At the swearing ceremony, the former Court of Appeal Judge, spoke briefly of her plan to focus on the matters of improving state of the local justice system.
The Chief Justice (CJ) spoke of her plan to ensure all hands are on deck towards having an improved justice system
Judicial back log
The Judge expounded particularly on her plan to address issues of Court particularly the backlog of criminal and civil matters.
In recent times, the Government of Guyana increased the number of judges to tackle the country’s daunting backlog of civil and criminal caseloads. The Ramotar Administration had boosted the number of judges eligible to sit in High Court from 11 to 20.
The Judges were appointed to handle thousands of old cases which were in the system for decades.
In some instances, criminal suspects have waited for five years for their cases to be heard, while numerous civil suits have been scrapped because litigants have died, migrated or given up due to delays.
Commenting on her approach to the problem, Cummings Edwards said that the plan is to ensure that the work is evenly distributed amongst the Judges. She noted that Judges, and all other stakeholders, including lawyers and litigants and even court clerks have equally important roles towards the assurance that justice is served in a timely manner.
To this end, Justice Cummings-Edwards asserted that while efforts to clear the backlog could mean longer hours of work for Judges, it is likewise the duty of lawyers, litigants and other stakeholders to make certain that they are prepared, on time and available, if necessary for hearings to be completed in an opportune manner, saving precious judicial time.
“Not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done,” the CJ firmly asserted.
Speaking specifically about the buildup in criminal cases, the Judge said that discussions are likely to be held with officials of the Director of Public Prosecutors, (DPP) on an approach as it regards towards further sanitization of the list of criminal matters.
These include the unavailability of witnesses, the unwillingness of some complainants to proceed with the matter, when it is called up in the High Court.
The Judge nonetheless welcomes the notion of having part-time Judges appointed to tackle the back log. Last October, Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs, Basil Williams, disclosed that a proposal was made to use the constitutional provision to appoint part-time judges to address the issue of the backlog of cases, as part of a wider plan for judicial reform.
“If we have four judges working for a period of six months it would be beneficial in addressing the backlog,” the AG had said. Chapter 1:01 of the Constitution of the Republic of Guyana makes provision for part –time Judges.
According to that section of the Constitution, the judges are to be appointed by the President, in accordance with the advice of the Judicial Service Commission, (JSC).
Improving the overall work of the Supreme Court
With regards to reforming to the functions of the Supreme Court, the new CJ said that she intends to do her part to make certain that the necessary systems are operational which will make the work of judicial arbitrators, easier.
With respect to criminal cases, Cummings- Edwards spoke of an improved system of recording evidence, since it is very important to the rate at which trials are completed.
She said that an enhanced system of recording evidence had been approved for the Courts for some time but it is yet to be operational throughout the Court.
“This would mean less time writing notes and the timely delivery of decisions and judgments,” the Judge said.
Justice Cummings–Edwards also spoke of the possibility of having judicial research assistants, since she believes that this will also help to reduce the length of time, the matters are completed.
Asked specifically about security at the High Court, the Judge said that it would be appropriate for members of the public to be scanned and searched before they can enter the Court premises.
Questioned about the issue of noise nuisance and the reluctance of drivers to adhere to traffic restrictions relative to the Court, the CJ said that it would be best if members of the public adhere to the silent zone limitation.
Last year, several drivers and push cart operators were hauled before the High Court after they were held in contempt for noise nuisance in the vicinity of the Georgetown High Court and Magistrates’ Court.
Judge Cummings-Edwards said that it would help if traffic ranks are placed at certain points around the Courts, to ensure that the law is enforced and suitable penalties imposed, when necessary.
Although Justice Cummings-Edwards declined to comment on certain aspects of her work as CJ, she will most likely preside over a number of closely watched constitutional matters. Among them is the Petition challenging the results of May 11, 2015 Regional and General Elections and a motion to challenge the selection of two Technocrat Ministers.
The matter for which two former Presidents (Bharrat Jagdeo and Donald Ramotar) have brought a legal challenge against the government over its decision to cap their unlimited benefits is also expected to come up before the new CJ.
But at the interim, Justice Cummings-Edwards is meeting with supervisors and heads of departments of the Court. The Judge said the meetings will aid her with crafting recommendations for the improvement of the administrative arm of the Supreme Court.
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