Unlike any other profession, law is practiced in the glare of publicity and this is the season of admission of lawyers to practice their profession in open court. Lawyers obtain their Legal Education Certificate from the Hugh Wooding Law School in Trinidad in September every year after two grueling years of study. This course of study is preceded by an additional three years in exhausting pursuit of the LL.B. degree at the University of Guyana. By October, they are ready to be admitted to practice.
The admission ceremony is a major event in the lives of newly qualified lawyers. It represents the successful culmination of five years of study and sacrifice. It allows them, albeit briefly but memorably, to thank and give public recognition of all those who helped them along the way – their parents, family members, teachers, the Almighty – and to pledge their commitment to uphold the high traditions of the Bar. There is a great sense of anticipation in a new and challenging endeavour and environment.
The opportunities for newly qualified lawyers are expanding rapidly. Private practice is still the most attractive option. Lawyers like the perceived drama of the courtroom, even though the reality is far different. The second option is service in the Chambers of the Attorney General or the Director of Public Prosecutions. From there lawyers can aspire to the Magistracy or eventually to the Judiciary. But wide opportunities now exist and continue to open up in other state sector areas and in the private sector. Increasingly lawyers are finding career opportunities outside of private practice.
While the challenges of private practice remain, lawyers of this generation no longer have to face the terrifying prospect of having to appear before fearsome judges of the previous generation, except occasionally when a courageous young lawyer seeks to protect his/her client against an intolerant judge equipped with the weapon of contempt and willing to deploy it as an argument when challenged.
I was gripped by terror the first few times when I had to appear before a Judge, even though the judicial threat of contempt never arose in this earlier era. On one occasion, as advised, I indicated to the ‘Angry God,’ Justice Akbar Khan, that I would seek an adjournment in a matter before him. He dismissed me with an emphatic ‘no’ accompanied by his piercing glare flashing from below bushy eyebrows. I slinked out of his Chambers into Court.
Among the lawyers in Court was the late Eon Hanoman. I had never seen him before. His girth, short neck, bald pate, puffed cheeks, firm and commanding voice, impressed me as a lawyer of great experience and authority. When the ‘Angry God’ was finished with him I wished I had joined some other profession or that the floor would open up and swallow me. As it turned out, when my matter was called, Justice Khan merely asked me what date I wanted. After his retirement we became firm friends.
Although substantial improvements have occurred in the justice system, serious problems remain. In the early 1970s a civil case came up for trial eighteen months after filing. Up to recently it took seven years. This was caused by the failure to continually refurbish, repair and invest in the justice system since the 1970s. Recent improvements by enterprising officials have pointed the way forward. It is hoped, however, that the end of the IDB’s justice improvement project will not bring an end to improvements and that the Government will make resources available.
Much could be done without additional resources. The proliferation of the illegal practice of law by mostly former lawyers’ clerks, some justices of the peace and commissioners of oaths and others, who have established offices in the vicinity of lawyers’ offices can be brought to an end by police action. These untrained persons openly tout in the vicinity of lawyers offices and cause serious harm to their victims.
These activities should be forcefully halted by criminal prosecutions. At the same time the authorities ought to permit a range of minor legal services to be performed by qualified clerks who undergo training and certification by the Guyana Bar Association under the authority of the Attorney General’s Chambers. In this way the public interest will be served, these services will be more competitively priced, and Guyana will be following the example of other countries.
An urgent reform for which the profession is still waiting and which will bring legal practice into the modern world and enhance the quality of justice is the recording of evidence and courtroom proceedings. Lawyers and judges, who have to write evidence in long hand, have been waiting for this development for decades and unless the resources are made available for this long awaited reform, Guyana’s justice system will remain underdeveloped and younger lawyers will be denied the modern facilities to enable them to efficiently serve their clients, deliver justice effectively and compete with their colleagues elsewhere in the region.
Finally, with the best intention, the Constitution Reform Commission recommended in 2000 ‘a consensual mechanism’ to appoint the Chancellor and Chief Justice. The National Assembly translated this in 2001 to mean agreement between the President and the Leader of the Opposition, which was not the intention behind the recommendation because of the potential of constitutional gridlock, which the National Assembly ignored. The continuing gridlock has devalued our judiciary, made it into a political football, demoralized our profession not to mention those concerned, disrespected our highest judicial offices and has made us a laughing stock.
Why can’t we aspire to the standard where a Lord Chief Justice of England can invite an executive member of the British Communist Party, then Stephen Sedley QC, to become a Judge and where Lord Justice Sedley retired as one of England’s most distinguished and innovative judges?