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.
Since the retirement of Chancellor (ag) Carl Singh and Chief Justice (ag) Ian Chang, the issue of their replacement has been at the forefront of discourse, at least privately, in legal circles, but occasionally in the media. I myself have written about the issue once when I called on President Granger to appoint persons to fill the posts which had become vacant and had remained so for several months. I was quite pleased when the President made acting appointments of Chief Justice Yonette Cummings-Edwards as Chancellor (ag) and of Justice George-Wiltshire S.C. as Chief Justice (ag). Justice George-Wiltshire S.C. who was also subsequently appointed as an Appeal Court Judge.
These two acting appointments, which only required consultation with the Leader of the Opposition, were enormously popular in the legal profession. After some months as acting appointees, I can say with certainty that the anticipated performances of the Chancellor (ag) and Chief Justice (ag) have exceeded expectations amidst enormous challenges, which had commenced under the chancellorship of Carl Singh, not least among which are the implementation of the new Civil Procedure Rules, the establishment of courts with new jurisdictions for family and sexual offences, the appointment of additional judges and a building programme to house courts, magistrates and judges. I believe that this opinion is shared by the legal profession.
The Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) will sit in Guyana for the first time this week. It is long overdue but welcome nevertheless. Guyana and Barbados were the first countries to accede to the appellate jurisdiction of the Court and our own Justice Desiree Bernard, now retiring, has been one of its first members.
Guyana’s final court of appeal, the Privy Council, was abolished in 1970. The PPP supported the establishment of our Court of Appeal but argued that the Privy Council should be retained for constitutional matters. It was felt that the Guyana judiciary was already being politically subverted and that a window of impartiality was necessary to protect at least the constitutional rights of the Guyanese people. The PPP did not succeed.