President David Granger: Members of the media. I was tempted to interrupt the Chancellor when she was describing the challenges that the Magistrate would be having to move around this huge region with his vehicle. I think she might have ignored the number of horses in the community and the fact that there is a mounted police detachment here which wasn’t present three years ago.
President David Granger: In that regard, I would advocate that in addition to the Certificate of Legal Education you get a certificate of equitation for the persons who are likely to be stationed in the hinterland for 14 years.
President David Granger: I’m happy to be here today. Of course, the good news is that when the President speaks, it’s usually the last major address of the day. The bad news is that everybody else’s is described as “remarks” but the President’s remarks are described as ‘feature’ remarks which blows the whole time-schedule to bits so I don’t think that I’ll join my colleague minster in talking for 180 seconds.
With that said, I’d like to refer to my inaugural address to the Tenth Parliament on the 10th of June 2015, when I called on the nation to, and I quote (it’s always good to quote yourself) “to combine our efforts and concentrate our energy on defeating the real enemies of our people: crime, disease, ignorance and poverty – the four horsemen of the Guyanese apocalypse”. But today as we gather here, we must not ignore the need to battle the fifth horseman, and that fifth horseman, alongside ignorance and disease and poverty and crime, is injustice.’
Improving access to justice will help to guarantee a good life- a life that is fair, a society that is safer and residents everywhere who are richer. Guyana is for all Guyanese and your Government has adopted the one nation approach aimed at reducing inequalities, opening new opportunities to the disadvantaged, and as the Minister of Communities said, “uniting coastland and hinterland”.
We are one country, not two, not one to the west and the other to the east of the Essequibo and we must remove the differences and disparities caused by that thousand-kilometre-long-river, the Essequibo, and build bridges and I hope that you will soon see a real bridge instead of a pontoon on Guyana’s longest river.
President David Granger: Thank you for your applause. Ladies and gentlemen, the Rupununi is bigger than Costa Rica- one of the richest states in Central America. The Rupununi is this country’s largest region, encompassing 57,750 square kilometres, more than a quarter of this country’s landmass. The Rupununi possesses a spectacular landscape. You don’t even need an air conditioner here. The highlands of the Acarai Mountains in the south, the Deep South, the grasslands of the central savannahs, the wetlands of the north, the rainforests of the south and the great rivers: Essequibo, Rupununi, Takutu nearby, among others, a beautiful landscape, a breath-taking landscape and the sheer size of this region is awesome.
The region however, hosts 89 communities most of which are separated by great distances and as a result the population density is very low, only 0.4 persons per square kilometre. Rupununi residents therefore, despite the region’s spatial differences with the rest of the country, are entitled to the full gamut of public services which are available to all citizens and our Government is keen to ensure that the residents of Rupununi have fair access to public services.
The region’s size and its scattered settlements and villages present formidable challenges to the efficient delivery of public services. The proclamation of Lethem as a capital town was intended not only to propel the region’s economic development but also to provide greater access to public services. Our Government has been promoting the idea of regionalism as you heard from the lips of the Minister of Communities. We wish to ensure that residents everywhere have access to public education, to public health, to public information; in fact, there is a regional radio station here for the first time, to public security and in that regard mounted police have returned to this region to help to cover the distances and this will become (if it has not yet become) a divisional headquarters.
So the police divisional system based on the whole county’s just like the judicial system, is undergoing a metamorphosis. Public utilities including electricity and the provision of clean water and citizenship services such as birth and death registration, passports and naturalisation and social protection through the NIS must also be provided in our capital towns.
Access to justice, equally, is a public good and must be available to everyone. Access to justice is a fundamental and a foundational principle of the rule of law, it is central to the democratic character of our State. It is an integral element of the principle of equality before the law, which is guaranteed by the Constitution of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana which states, as you know very well
The State shall not deny to any person, equality before the law or equal protection 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 exist only where there is equality of access to the law. The absence of such access deprives citizens of equal protection and benefit of the law. There can be no equality of the law without equality of access to justice. The law should be a great leveller, should not be a divider (that is, spelt with an ‘I’); it should not be an instrument of oppression of the rich against the poor or of the strong against the weak; it must emphasise 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 has always presented a challenge for the residents of the Rupununi who too often have had to travel long distances; sometimes by canoe, sometimes by bullock cart, sometimes on horseback, sometimes on foot to obtain legal services. Legal service for the police in the region and for residents, prior to today’s date, had to be obtained by the Magistrate’s Court in Georgetown 425 kilometres away. I said that the commissioning of the new wing of the High Court, of the Supreme Court of the Judicature, on the 28th of July, 2017, that that new wing was an investment which stood as testimony to the Government’s commitment to improving access to justice. I noted then that the Court would help to overcome the cost and complexity of litigation by providing access to specialised courts such as the Civil, Commercial, Family and Land Courts to deal with specialised issues.
The Constitution guarantees equality before the law and equal protection under the law, can be assured to citizens only where there is access to justice. I said and I quote, “access to justice ensures that citizens’ rights are protected, especially the right to a fair trial within a reasonable time; citizens can be heard, can exercise their rights and can challenge discrimination; costs can be reduced by ensuring speedy trials by the quick settlement of disputes. The opening of the new wing of the High Court, therefore, is the opening of a new chapter in our country’s quest to improve the administration of justice and to expand access to justice for all”.
That was only last July. In August, a few weeks later, I attended the opening of Guyana’s Tenth Magisterial District at Linden, the hometown of the Chancellor of the Judiciary, the capital town of Upper Demerara-Berbice Region and I’m glad nobody tried to call the name of this region; everybody calls it the Rupununi Region, instead of Upper Takutu-Upper Essequibo; we’re going to get there- stop these tongue-tying titles- this is the Rupununi. Anyhow, the Chancellor comes from the Upper Demerara-Upper Berbice Region. When I spoke there on the 3rd of August, 2017, I said that “this magisterial district brings the administration of justice closer to the people. It is aimed at a more timely and less costly form of 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, and I’m glad that this is happening in the judicial system of this country.
We are witnessing today a model, and I sincerely hope that in years to come this model will be replicated in every single region of Guyana. I noted then, at Linden, Wismar actually (people from Wismar don’t like it to be called Linden) I noticed that many residents in the rural and hinterland areas face everyday challenges for which they seek legal remedies – residents including victims of domestic abuse, trapped in abusive and loveless relationships are forced to live with their abusers; mothers denied access to their children because they cannot take their errant husbands and children fathers to court- a hundred kilometres away; small miners and businessmen facing bankruptcy cannot reach the court to claim unpaid debts or wages – these complaints should not be ignored. Access to justice, including ease of access, is every citizen’s legitimate expectation. Residents should not have to travel long distances to access public services, including legal services in other regions. In fact, I don’t know if it still prevails, some time ago, maybe Chairman Allicock can correct me, if you wanted to register a business in Lethem you had go to Adventure on the Essequibo Coast. Who’s the genius who thought that up? They should enjoy the services within their respective regions. That’s the whole purpose of establishing capital towns. No one should have to leave his or her region to get any Government service.
Ladies and gentlemen, the executive branch of the Government of this country, over the past 32 months, has been unwavering in its commitment to safeguarding the autonomy and independence of the judicial branch. The executive branch passed the Fiscal Management and Accountability Amendment Act of 2015 to provide the financial autonomy of the judiciary. You’re now autonomous. It appointed judges to go to the High Court and the Court of Appeal in accordance with the provisions of our Constitution and as Acting Chancellor and Acting Chief Justice after consultation with the Leader of the Opposition, again in accordance with the Constitution, and initiated consultations for the subsequent appointments to these posts- awaiting, awaiting response. Response is delayed.
We restored the independent offices of the Ombudsman which provides administrative justice to citizens, and a Public Service Appellate Tribunal, which protects the rights of public servants. We supported the establishment of new buildings for the Land and Commercial Registries, a new wing for the High Court and for the creation of the Upper Demerara Magisterial District and now this office here in the Rupununi and we will continue to support the process of extending and expanding access to justice by the citizens of this country.
We iterated our commitment to continue to comply with the decisions of the Judicial Service Commission and of court rulings. The Government also supports the independence of their legal profession by promoting greater respect for its members through the restoration of the time-honoured convention of regular and meritorious appointments of Senior Counsel. Access to affordable legal services is a cornerstone of the access to justice.
Ladies and gentlemen, experience has demonstrated that while legal services, provided by attorneys-at-law may be available, they are not always affordable – I don’t know why – and particularly for poor, hinterland and rural citizens, this could be very challenging.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Government is playing its part and the judiciary and magistracy are playing their parts in providing access to the physical and legal side of the justice system. I would like to urge civil society and particularly members of the legal profession to establish regional legal aid centres in order to assist poor people to secure adequate legal representation.
President David Granger: Thank you for that moderate endorsement. The Rupununi Magisterial District, ladies and gentlemen, this Court Office will provide greater access and more affordable legal services to this region’s residents- all 25,000 of them. It will ensure that the people of the Rupununi enjoy similar legal services to that which is available in other regions, judgments, convictions, fees, fines and other monies paid in respect of proceedings in the court henceforth, Mr. Chairman, will be collected here in Lethem in the regional capital town, instead of being collected in the national capital city- Georgetown.
The establishment of this Magisterial District Court Office therefore, will reduce the cost of access to justice and legal services. This event today represents a replication of the regional model- one that is consistent with the policy of the executive in providing greater public services to residents and I am happy that the judiciary, the judicial branch of Government, has adopted that model wholeheartedly. Access to justice is a public good, one that is completely in accord with my administration’s goal to provide a good life for all Guyanese.
I thank you.