I will stay away from the continuing controversies between the current and past Attorneys-General. To coin a phrase, when elephants rumble, it’s the insects in the grass who get trampled. I will likewise stay away from the merits or otherwise of the Chief Justice’s decision ordering the Minster of Legal Affairs to bring the Act into force. It is likely to be appealed and the Court of Appeal will decide. But why is the Judicial Review Act important to the public?
There is an area of law called ‘public law.’ While much law notionally exists for the protection of the public, ‘public law’ more directly protects the rights of the citizen in his or her relations with the state and public bodies or authorities by holding them to account. The instruments used by the courts in public law are of ancient origin, initially directed against the King, and are called writs of certiorari – to quash a decision, mandamus – to order something to be done, prohibition – to prohibit an act and the lesser known, quo warranto – challenging the right to hold an office. The writ of habeas corpus – ordering the production of a body, is linked to these. They are called ‘prerogative’ remedies issued by courts on the application of citizens for ‘judicial review’ to enforce their rights against the state or public authorities. Currently, these are the only remedies available in public law.
The offence of misconduct in public office carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. It is what is known as a ‘common law’ offence and is triable on indictment. This means that it is is derived from judge-made law of England which Guyana has legally inherited. And it is triable by jury. The maximum penalty suggests that it is regarded as a very serious offence.
While the offence can be traced back to the 13th century, a definition, given by Chief Justice Lord Mansfield in the 1783 case of R v Rembridge emphasized its importance: “…. first that a man accepting an office of trust concerning the public, especially if attended with profit, is answerable criminally to the King for misbehavior in his office; …. Secondly, where there is a breach of trust, fraud or imposition in a matter concerning the public, though as between individuals it would be actionable, yet as between the King and the subject it is indictable. That such should be the rule is essential to the existence of the country.”
Tit for tat politics have arrived with a vengeance. The APNU+AFC police has charged PPP supporters and the PPP has struck back by charging APNU supporters. The charges against former members of the past PPP/C administration will be seen as a political vendetta and will kill any possibility of movement towards a political solution.
Reports broke on April 12 that former Minister of Finance and Chairman of NICIL, Ashni Singh, and former NICIL Head, Winston Brassington, were jointly charged in absentia by the Special Organised Crime Unit (SOCU) with three counts of misconduct in public office between December 2008 and May 2011 contrary to the common law. They were charged for: firstly, having sold 4.7000 acres of Government owned land at Liliendaal to Scady Business Corporation for $150M when they knew that it was valued at $340M by Rodrigues Architects; secondly, having acted recklessly in selling to National Hardware Guyana Limited in December 2008 Government owned land at Turkeyen for $598,659,398M without procuring a valuation; and, thirdly, having sold 10.002 acres of land at Turkeyen to Multicinemas Guyana in May, 2011, for $185M without procuring a valuation.
On Wednesday last the public was treated to a brilliant and expansive lecture by the former Chancellor (ag) of the Judiciary and now Distinguished Jurist-in-Residence at the University of Guyana, Carl Singh. The subject was “The Constitutional Guarantee of Fundamental Rights and the Citizen. The lecture, to a packed hall and attentive audience at Herdmanston House, was the third in the series “Conversation on Law and Society.” Chancellor Singh started by pointing out that while citizens may not always be cognizant of what their right are, they are certainly aware that the Constitution guarantees them, which they are often prepared to aggressively defend. He related the story of a visitor to a hospital in Georgetown who was being prevented from entering because the visiting hours had come to an end. During the argument between the visitor and the hospital staff, the visitor loudly proclaimed that it was her constitutional right to enter the hospital to visit her relative!
Chancellor Singh explored a wide range of issues, not all of which can be examined here. A few are selected.
This article below was first published in June, 2014, in a different political era. The recent shooting by the Police of three men on the seawall demonstrates the continuing relevance of the issues discussed at that time. I wrote as follows:
Violence and corruption in the police force can no longer be classified as allegations. They are real and are now an integral part of the culture of the Police Force and policing in Guyana. The sooner the authorities accept that these are chronic and systemic problems in the Police Force, the quicker there will be a serious attempt at a solution. No such attempt has yet taken place, even though modest efforts at ‘reforms’ have been made. But these have been attempted only reluctantly, after much public pressure and as an attempt to soothe public opinion. When public rage overflows, such as after the shootings in Middle Street, the public is offered the creation of a SWAT team. But the danger now exists that the Police Force will become so enmeshed and so entrenched in violence and corruption, that systems to protect these will take on a life of their own within progressively higher reaches of the Police Force.