(Remarks by HE David Granger at the Opening Ceremony of the
Upper Demerara Magistrates’ District on August 3, 2017)
Access to justice is the foundation of a democratic nation and the hallmark of modern civilisation.
The Cooperative Republic of Guyana is a law-based state. One of the principles enshrined
in our ‘Constitution’ is equality before the law. The Constitution, at Article 149 (D)(1), provides that: “…The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or equal protection and benefit of the law.”
Equality before the law is the essential element of justice. It ensures that all citizens enjoy “…equal protection and benefit of the law.”
Equality before the law can thrive only where there is access to the law. The absence of such access deprives citizens of “…equal protection and benefit of the law.”
Many residents in rural regions and the hinterland face everyday challenges to which they seek remedies. Residents – including victims of domestic abuse trapped in loveless relationships with their abusers; mothers denied access to their children because they cannot take their husbands and children-fathers to court a hundred kilometres away; small miners and businessmen facing bankruptcy because they cannot reach the court to claim unpaid debts or wages – should not be ignored.
Access to justice, is a precondition for the “…equal protection and benefit of the law.” It is a principle of the rule of law. The law should be a great leveler. It should not be a weapon for the strong and powerful against the poor, weak and vulnerable. It emphasises citizens’ basic human right to have legal recourse and redress for wrongs committed against them and their property and for the preservation of public order.
Access to justice:
An accessible justice system is essential to human safety, to public security and to a strong economy. Cohesive societies rely on public confidence that the courts will enforce their rights and their trust in the rule of law. When trust fails, the rule of the law falters.
Magistrates’ courts constitute the first tier of Guyana’s justice system. Magistrates’ courts are often described as ‘inferior’ courts, but their “inferiority” is by rank and not importance.
Magistrates’ courts are the main and, often, the most frequented interface between citizens and the justice system. Citizens look to magistrates’ courts for access to justice and for the efficacious and efficient discharge of justice.
Magistrates’ courts serve as an important link between citizens and the judiciary through the services they provide in the jurisdiction of the courts as prescribed and delimited by statute.
Magistrates’ courts shelter citizens’ persons and their property and help to preserve public order. They protect citizens against:
*offences against their persons such as assault, battery, the ill-treatment, neglect or abandonment of children and unlawful wounding;
* offences against property and the rights of property, such as willful trespass; injury to animals and plants and other property;
*offences against public order such as public terror, disorderly conduct, riotous behaviour and breach of the peace; and
* offences such as corruption, embezzlement, false pretence, forgery fraudulent misappropriation, larceny and receiving stolen property.
Magistrates’ courts hear claims, also, to determine cases relating to possession and rental of premises, for the recovery of petty debts and the maintenance and support of children and women.
Magistrates’ courts are expected to dispense justice to citizens in a fair and swift manner in accordance with the Constitution of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana which provides, at Article 144(1):
If any person is charged with a criminal offence then, unless the charge is withdrawn, the case shall be afforded a fair hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial court established by law.
Confidence in the magistrates’ courts will enhance the overall administration of justice in the country and foster social cohesion. Citizens’ assessment of the justice system is shaped by their experience at the level of the magistrate’s courts. That experience can be enhanced by an unblemished and ‘un-bribable’ magistracy.
The Annual Report of the Supreme Court of Judicature for 2015 observed that, for five districts, 39,700 cases were filed in 2015 and, for seven districts, more than 21,000 criminal, civil and maintenance cases remained outstanding.
The Annual Report notes that some magistrates are manning as many as three courts per week. It called for a review of the authorised strength of the magistracy since the workload is becoming “voluminous”.
The Executive branch supports the appointment of persons as magistrates who evince the qualities of ‘integrity, impartiality and independence’, in other words, ‘fit and proper’ persons. Such magistrates will help to reduce the number of incomplete cases, to provide a higher quality of service to citizens and to ensure a more efficient magistracy.
The establishment of the Upper Demerara Magisterial District is an initiative of the Judicial Branch. It is not an instruction of the Executive Branch. The establishment of Guyana’s tenth magisterial district, therefore, is a manifestation that judicial independence exists in the state of Guyana. The Summary Jurisdiction (Magistrates) Act of the Laws of Guyana provides for the establishment of new magisterial districts. The Act empowers the Chancellor of the Judiciary to:
*divide Guyana, or any portion thereof, into magisterial districts…;
* constitute, in any part of Guyana, a magisterial district or districts…;
*distinguish the districts by name and number…; and
* vary the limits of any district.
The Executive Branch supports the establishment of the Upper Demerara Magisterial District because it enhances access to justice. This Magisterial District will ensure the easier access to legal services and the speedier dispensation of justice. It will encourage improvement in the administration of justice.
The State accepts its obligation to the people. It provides, already, a sound primary education to children; it offers social security to senior citizens and others; it provides primary health care to the poor and needy; it ensures human safety to everyone and it protects its nationals at home and abroad.
The State, also, must ensure access to justice – the right of every person to be heard in a court of summary jurisdiction – as a basic right and a key entitlement of the ‘good life’.
Access to justice, including ease of access, is every citizen’s legitimate expectation. Residents of their home regions should not have to travel long distances to access public services, including legal services in other Regions.
Access to justice in the Upper Demerara-Berbice Region must take account of Guyana’s peculiar demography and geography. This Region is almost as large as Swaziland. It straddles our three great rivers – Berbice, Demerara and Essequibo. It is, apart from Linden Town, made up of several, small, scattered communities with poor roadways.
Access to justice is difficult to achieve for the majority of the Region’s fifty thousand residents. The establishment of the magisterial district is of transcendental significance for public administration. The State has taken one small step, today, to abandon the archaic colonial system of counties which existed from time immemorial and to adopt a rational system of regional administration.
This country is made up of ten administrative Regions. The Government, in 2016, created three new ‘capital towns’ in the hinterland – at Bartica, Lethem and Mabaruma and one will soon be established at Mahdia – to ensure that each hinterland Region will be able to enhance the delivery of public services and to improve access to justice to its residents.
The various divisions of the Guyana Police Force, also, soon will conform to the Regional system so that every Regional Democratic Council will have its own Police Division. The Judicial system we expect, will consider modifying its structure to conform to administrative reality.
This Magisterial District will remove the need for residents of Linden, Ituni and Kwakwani to travel to Vreed-en-Hoop in the Essequibo Islands-West Demerara Region and to New Amsterdam in the East Berbice-Corentyne Region to obtain the services provided by the magistracy.
This Magisterial district allows, also, for residents of Linden, Ituni and Kwakwani to benefit from similar legal services to those available in other districts.
This Magisterial District brings the administration of justice closer to the people. It is aimed at timelier and less costly justice. It makes justice more accessible for this Region’s residents. This is a model which can be replicated in each of Guyana’s ten administrative Regions. If citizens cannot come to the court, the court must come to the citizen.
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