Easier access to justice for everyone, everywhere

The establishment of the Diamond-Grove Magistrates’ Court in the Demerara-Mahaica Region is another step in the direction of providing easier access to justice, for everyone, everywhere in Guyana.

Access to justice is a guiding principle of Guyana’s Judiciary. The decentralization of the Magistracy conforms to the Government’s policy of extending public services countrywide.

Guyana is a complex country – demographically, geographically, socially and politically. It is the largest Caribbean state in size but has a population density of fewer than four person per square kilometer, compared to 660 persons per square kilometer in Barbados.

Cross-country communications and transportation can be challenging. The sizes of our regions are astonishing. The Barima-Waini Region is larger than Kuwait; Pomeroon-Supenaam is larger than Trinidad and Tobago; Essequibo Islands-West Demerara is larger than Mauritius; Demerara-Mahaica is larger than Singapore; Mahaica-Berbice is larger than Cape Verde; East Corentyne-Berbice is larger than Belgium; Cuyuni-Mazaruni is larger than the Netherlands; the Potaro-Siparuni is larger than Fiji; the Rupununi (Upper Takutu-Upper Essequibo) is larger than Costa Rica and Upper Demerara-Berbice is larger than The Bahamas.

The landscape is described, beautifully, in our National Anthem, as being one “…of rivers and plains,” but there are more. There are islands, highlands, grasslands, wetlands, waterfalls, lakes and forests where people live and work and central Government needs to deliver services to people wherever they live.

The government of British Guiana introduced a system of ‘Districts’ in 1932 in which the country was divided into nine districts – East Berbice, East Demerara, Essequibo, Essequibo Islands, West Berbice, West Demerara, North West, Mazaruni-Potaro and Rupununi.
Districts were headed by District Commissioners who possessed magisterial powers. The District Government Act provided for District Commissioners to be appointed as Magistrates.

The Act [at Section 6] stated: The District Commissioner may at any time by notice in the Gazette be appointed to act as a magistrate within the district, and the appointment may at any time be cancelled by like notice. The replacement of the District Commission system by the Ministerial Regional system in 1973 removed such magisterial powers.

The Ministerial Regional system of 1973 divided the country into six administrative regions but was replaced, in 1980, by the present system in which the country was divided into ten Regional Administrations.

Magisterial districts seemed to correspond with the old ‘District’ system, more or less. The establishment of the new Upper Demerara Magisterial District in 2017, brought the administration of justice more in line with the current regional system and coincides with the recently adjusted policing divisions.
The Republic has pursued a policy of regionalization in order to extend public services, expand public utilities and enhance regional and national development. These are not easy tasks given the country’s geographic and demographic realities.

The regionalization of public services – including access to justice – is imperative in light of the relative vastness of our regions, the remoteness of many hinterland communities and the diverse landscapes in which they are located.

Every citizen, everywhere, is entitled to the protection of the law. He or she can benefit from this protection only if the services of the country’s legal system are accessible.

Law binds citizens to society. Law establishes the rules with which citizens are obliged to comply. Law is essential to personal relations, public order and progress. Society would disintegrate into chaos without explicit laws to direct human relations, protect citizens and fetter institutional and executive power.

Guyana is a law-based state. It subscribes to the rule of law which subjects everyone to the law and equal protection of 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.”
Every citizen is entitled to a number of rights and protections, under the Constitution [at Article 144], including:
. the right to fair hearing within reasonable time by an impartial court;
. the presumption of innocence until proven guilty; and sometime we have to remind the Media about the presumption of innocence
. the right to be informed of the nature of any charges and to be provided with adequate time and facilities to mount a defence.
The criminal justice system ― comprising the Courts, the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), lawyers, the Police Force and the Prison Service ― is essential to enforcing laws, deterring violations and punishing and rehabilitating those who break the law.

The criminal justice system should serve citizens by providing disincentives for persons who breach the rules by which members of society have agreed to abide.

The criminal justice system protects citizens’ property, promotes public order and provides them with recourse against injustice. The system should protect citizens, regardless of their age, ethnicity, faith, wealth or place of residence ― in sparsely populated hinterland communities or the more densely populated rural and urban centers. Everyone, everywhere is entitled to easier access to justice.

Access to justice is a fundamental and foundational principle of the rule of law. It is characteristic of a democratic state and considered as a hallmark of modern civilization.

Equality before the law can exist only where there is access to the law. The absence of access to the law access deprives citizens of “…equal protection and benefit of the law.” The rule of law would flounder without access to justice. Access to justice requires that citizens are:
. provided with legal recourse that is accessible and affordable;
. protected against unlawful usurpation of their property, the violation of their rights and disruptions to public order; and
. protected from persons who represent a threat to society.

Access to justice is a public good. An accessible justice system strengthens public security and provides assurances to investors that there would be easy access to settling disputes.

Magistrates’ courts are the most frequented interface between citizens and the justice system. Citizens have reasonable expectations of magistrates’ courts as a means for the efficient discharge of justice.

Magistrates’ courts are often described as ‘inferior’ courts, but their “inferiority” is of rank and not of importance. They constitute the first tier of the justice system and serve as an important link between citizens, the community and the judiciary.

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, consequently, are guardians of citizens’ rights. The establishment of additional magistrates’ courts is welcome especially as it guarantees swifter and easier access of justice and the provision of legal services to citizens.

The opening of the Upper Demerara Magisterial District on the 3rd August 2017 and the launch of the Rupununi Magisterial District on the 2nd February 2018 which I attended gave me the opportunity to note that the establishment of magisterial districts brought the administration of justice closer to the people and provided timely and less costly access to justice.

I said then that: “If the citizen cannot come to the court, the court must come to the citizen…” I suggested that this model be replicated in each of the country’s ten administrative Regions. I am happy that this is being done. We are taking courts to the communities.

Guyana’s fifty-four functional magistrate’s courts – including the Bail Court, Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation Court, Juvenile Court and the Sexual Offences Court – are presided over by a small corps of only twenty-three magistrates. This is much work for few hands.

The Executive is willing to support the appointment of a sufficient number of magistrates so that courts could be manned adequately to ensure the timely dispensation of justice.

Human society is becoming more complex and the law must change, accordingly. Justice has passed the stage of being limited to the imposition of punishment. Human rights and rehabilitation have become central objectives of modern legal systems.

Specialized courts at the magisterial level manifest the increasing complexity of law. They reflect a recognition of the multifaceted nature of crimes and the need to ensure that the investigation and punishment of crime do not ignore causation.

Specialized courts attempt to get to the root of criminal behaviour. They place greater emphasis on restorative justice and the reduction of recidivism, including through the imposition of non-custodial sentences where these are deemed appropriate.

The criminal justice system should not respond in a stereotyped, style to all crimes. Greater flexibility is needed in dispensing justice so that one-type of punishment – imprisonment for example, is not perceived as a panacea for punishing or deterring crime.

Magistrate’s courts in some jurisdictions are taking steps to reduce the practice of mandatory incarceration for certain offences. That is good. Alternatives to custodial sentencing are being carefully considered where appropriate and are part of the heritage of the country’s ethnic groups.

I commend the Chancellor and Chief Justice and other members of the team for continuing the programme of establishing magisterial courts throughout the country. Magistrates’ courts are now found in every region:
. Barima-Waini, at Acquero, Mabaruma and Matthew’s Ridge;
. Pomeroon-Supenaam, at Anna Regina, Charity and Suddie;
. Essequibo Islands-West Demerara, at Leguan, Leonora,
Vreed-en-Hoop, Wakenaam and Wales;
. Demerara-Mahaica, at Cove and John, Georgetown,
Mahaica, Providence, Sparendaam, Vigilance and, now, Diamond-Grove;
. Mahaica-Berbice, at Blairmont, Fort Wellington, Mahaicony and Weldaad;
. East Berbice-Corentyne, at Albion, Mibicuri, New Amsterdam,
No. 51 Village, Reliance, Sisters, Springlands and Whim;
. Cuyuni-Mazaruni, at Bartica and Kamarang;
. Potaro-Siparuni, at Mahdia;
. Rupununi, at Aishalton, Annai, Karasabai
and Lethem; and
. Upper Demerara-Berbice, at Kwakwani and Linden.

The entire country will be covered in due course by a network of Magistrates’ Courts to dispense justice and respond to the needs of all Guyanese, everywhere.

Magistrates’ Courts are spread across all ten administrative Regions, albeit unevenly. This emergent system reflects, more closely, the policy of regionalization of administration adopted by the Public Service and, most recently, the Police Force.
Legal systems do not exist in a vacuum. The courts are linked to the citizens and communities they serve. The choice of Diamond-Grove as the location for the construction of this new court was a necessity.

Diamond-Grove is one of the fastest growing settlements in the country. It is estimated that more than 35,000 persons now live in this neighbourhood.
Diamond-Grove, two decades ago, was primarily canfields. The downsizing of the sugar industry did not commence in 2016. The twenty-three-year period between 1992 and 2015 witnessed the removal of 5,340 employees from the payroll of the Guyana Sugar Corporation.

Diamond estate, alone, severed 500 employees when it was closed in 2010. The Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union was obliged to take the Corporation to Court to secure benefits for those employees.

The termination of sugar production released 4,000 hectares of land for other purposes. A thriving human community has emerged out of the rubble and stubble of the cane-fields of Diamond Estate. Diamond-Grove now has its own banks, churches, commercial enterprises, hospital, insurance companies, mandirs, masjids, police station, pure-water supply system, restaurants, schools and supermarkets. The community, deservedly, now has its own magistrates’ court.

The establishment of the court typifies the connection between the courts and the community. It manifests the decentralization of legal services, particularly to rural and hinterland regions and communities.

The Decade of Development: 2020-2029 – a ten-year plan – was launched on 1st January this year. The Decade will be period of accelerated development in all fields, including the country’s justice administration system.

The Executive branch respects the independence of the judiciary. It has never sought to interfere with, or to direct, the administrative policies of the judicial branch of the State. It has supported the efforts of the judiciary in improving the country’s legal system. The Executive branch:
. provided for the financial autonomy of the Judiciary by approving the Fiscal Management and Accountability (Amendment) Act of 2015;
. appointed judges to both the High Court and the Court of Appeal, in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution and an 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 substantive appointments to these posts – without success.

. restored the independent offices of the Ombudsman – which provides administrative justice to citizens – and the Public Service Appellate Tribunal which protects the rights of public servants;

. supported the establishment of new buildings for the Land and Commercial Registries, a new wing for the High Court, the opening of a Juvenile Court, the activation of the Family court and the creation of the Upper Demerara Magisterial District and Rupununi Magisterial District.

The Executive Branch supports the independence of the 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.

The Executive Branch has provided financing for the establishment of new buildings to house Magistrates’ Courts at Bartica and Mahdia and for the physical renovation and refurbishing of others.

The Executive Branch will continue to lend its support to initiatives by the judiciary during the Decade of Development. It is confident that by the end of the ‘Decade’, access to justice would have been improved considerably and magistrates and judges will be working in a much-improved judicial system.
The establishment of this court will ease the caseload which had to be borne by the Providence Magistrates’ Court. The East Bank of Demerara corridor – between Mc Doom and Golden Grove villages – has witnessed the development of large housing estates and a consequent surge in population. The new court will improve access to justice for the estimated 70,000 residents of the entire East Bank of Demerara.

Guyana’s system of justice administration still faces many challenges but it is becoming more resilient and robust and more responsive to the needs of the people. Citizens can be assured of progressive improvements in the system of administration of justice.

I congratulate the Chancellor and Chief Justice on the establishment of this Court and the pursuit of a policy of improving citizens’ access to justice for everyone, everywhere in the country’s ten administrative Regions.

I am confident that this Court will improve the country’s system of justice administration further.

I thank you. Ω

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