Rupununi Magisterial District Court Office opened -President says access to justice integral to equality

Georgetown, Guyana – (February 3, 2018) Residents of the Rupununi Region will now enjoy improved access to justice with the opening of the Rupununi Magisterial District Court Office and Courts at Annai, Aishalton and Karasabai. Speaking at the opening ceremony, where Resident Magistrate, Mr. Allan Wilson will preside, President David Granger, emphasised the importance of all Guyanese having equal access to the law regardless of geographic location, socio-economic status, ethnicity or educational level.

President David Granger poses with members of the Judiciary of Guyana.

“There can be no equality before the law without access to justice. The law should be a great leveller. It should not be a divider. It should not be an instrument of oppression of the rich against the poor, or of the strong against the weak. It emphasises 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,” the Head of State said.

President Granger noted that ensuring equal access to justice under the law in the Rupununi has always presented a challenge with residents being forced to travel from far-flung communities in the Region to the Magistrates’ Court Office in Georgetown; some 425 km away. Acting Chancellor of the Judiciary, Justice Yonette Cummings-Edwards described the difficulties residents faced as a result of those challenges and noted that it was critical that justice is brought to the doorsteps of the residents of the 89 communities in the Rupununi.

“Prior to this office… court was held occasionally and I’m being modest. For the Lethem area, court was held once every three months, once quarterly, maybe two weeks within the quarter… Justice is not one- sided. Justice has to be for both sides. For residents of the region, persons coming all the way from Karasabai or even Aishalton, most of the time the court will be held here in Lethem and they will have to travel sometimes two days just to get to court. And if water is high, you’re familiar with that phrase, it would take even longer for them to get to this court. We in the Supreme Court, we do not sit in an ivory tower. We are in tune with what is going on the ground and we care,” she said.

The Chancellor also described the challenges faced by the Guyana Police Force as a result of infrequent court sittings. “This project also will bring enormous benefits for the police because out of that system, if someone who was charged with an offence, if it was a serious offence or a non-bailable offence, the Guyana Police Force had to find money to take that prisoner out to Georgetown before Her Worship, the Chief Magistrate, who would take the plea and commit that person on remand to prison or put that person on bail… Also, apart from that, if someone wanted to take advantage of the system, they would have known that court will not be sitting in for the next three months so they can fight and do all they wanted to do and know very well that the police cannot do anything much but just give them a warning because court won’t be there anyway and… the maximum time the police could hold them is 72 hours,” she explained.

Quoting Article 149 D (1) of the Constitution, which states that, “…The State shall not deny to any person, equality before the law or equal protection and 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,” President Granger said that access to justice is a public good and that the State has the responsibility to ensure that it is available to every citizen.

President David Granger and Chancellor of the Judiciary (Ag.), Justice Yonette Cummings-Edwards unveiling the plaque.

“Residents – including victims of domestic abuse trapped in loveless relationships with their abusers; mothers denied access to their children because they cannot take their husbands and children-fathers to court a hundred kilometres away; small miners and businessmen facing bankruptcy because they cannot reach the court to claim unpaid debts or wages – 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. They should enjoy these services in their respective regions,” he said.

Chief Magistrate, Her Worship Ann McLennan told residents gathered at the ceremony that their complaints never fell on deaf ears. “Today your dreams and the dreams of your fore-parents have become a reality. The representation made and hard work done by your fore parents and your toshaos and your regional representatives was not in vain. Today with the opening of this district court office, access to justice will be easy for the residents of the Rupununi Magisterial District and simultaneously because of the opening of this office and the courts in the villages of Annai, Aishalton and Karasabai, we the magistrates are better equip to perform our duties efficiently and effectively because we now have the tools to do so,” she said.

Magistrate McLennan said that opening is intended to improve court operations and services to court users. “There will also be weekly court sittings at Lethem and eventually in the villages of Annai, Aishalton and Karasabai. On the days in which these courts sit, the filing of documents and all other transactions will be facilitated… Therefore, from today residents of the Rupununi will be no longer be required to travel to Georgetown to file documents; instead filing will take place right here in this district,” she said, adding that the proposed schedule for Court in the Region is a sitting the first week of the month in Lethem, the second week in Annai, third week in Aishalton and the fourth week at Karasabai.

The current Government, over the past 32 months, has been unwavering in its commitment to safeguarding the autonomy and independence of the judicial branch and this is evidenced by the passing of the  Fiscal Management and Accountability (Amendment) Act of 2015, the appointment of judges to both the High Court and the Court of Appeal, in accordance with the provisions of Guyana’s Constitution and the appointment of an acting Chancellor and acting Chief Justice after consultation with the Leader of the Opposition. The Government has also initiated consultations for the substantive appointments to these posts. The President also pointed to the restoration of the ‘independent’ offices of the Ombudsman, support for the establishment of new buildings for the Land and Commercial Registries, a new wing for the High Court and the creation of the Upper Demerara Magisterial District and now the Rupununi Magisterial District. Respect for the rule of law was also demonstrated through Government’s commitment to continue to comply with the decisions of the Judicial Service Commission and court rulings and respect for the legal profession through regular and meritorious appointments of Senior Counsel.

While Government is doing its part to provide access to the physical and legal side of the justice system President Granger issued a call to the 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.  He said, “Access to affordable legal services is a cornerstone of access to justice. Experience has demonstrated that, while legal services, provided by attorneys-at-law may be available, they are not always affordable, particularly for poor hinterland and rural citizens.”

President Granger said that his Government has adopted the ‘One Nation’ approach aimed at reducing inequalities, opening new opportunities to the disadvantaged and uniting the coastland and the hinterland. This, he said does not only include access to justice but all public services.

“Rupununi residents, despite the Region’s spatial differences to the rest of the country, are entitled to the full gamut of public services which are available to citizens. The Government is keen to ensure that the residents of Rupununi have access to public services. The Region’s size and its several scattered settlements and villages present formidable challenges for the efficient delivery of public services. The proclamation of Lethem as a capital town was intended not only to propel this Region’s economic development but, also, to provide access to public services,” he said.

Along with access to justice, the President said that Government’s regionalism approach is built on ensuring every region has equal access to public education, public health, public information such as the new radio station, public security with the establishment of a police divisional headquarters, public utilities including electricity and clean water and citizenship services such as birth and death registration, passports and naturalisation and social protection. The Head of State said he is happy that the Judicial Branch of Government has adopted this regionalism approach.

Minister of Communities, Mr. Ronald Bulkan supported this point stating that for Government to be effective it requires that all three branches must have unity of purpose.  “A key strategic objective of the administration is to pursue a decentralised model of Governance in accordance with constitutional provisions. This model presupposes or envisages the need for strong regions. It is incongruous, therefore, for a region as large as this –the largest– to have just a single court and prior to now not sitting not on a full-time basis,” he said.

Recalling his early days as a Magistrate assigned to Lethem, when in 2004 the court was at that time conducted in a very small area within the police station, Magistrate Wilson said that the court schedule allowed for sitting of the court for about one week every three months. In order to accommodate the volume of cases, the court schedule was revised and instead of meeting one week every three months, an additional week was added. With the commissioning of the new court in 2015 and now the creation of this sub-registry and the expansion of the Magisterial District to include parts of Aishalton and Karasabai, Magistrate Wilson said residents will now be able to access services that were not readily available to them before.

“No longer will the litigants have to travel long distances to Georgetown to recover their bail at the end of trials… and it will also now be easier for domestic violence issues to be addressed in a timely fashion… This sub-registry will also allow for more accurate record-keeping in respect of matters that were addressed,” he said.

Mayor of Lethem, His Worship Carlton Beckles pledged the support of the Council noting that the advent of regular court sessions will contribute to timely litigation. “There is a piece of jurisprudence, which says “that justice must not only be done but appear to be done”, but it is most important to provide a service to that will contribute to us reaching our goals as a capital town. The days of court sessions every three months are now history. We have joined other municipalities like Linden, Bartica, and New Amsterdam just to name a few,” he declared.

Aishalton Toshao, Mr. Douglas Casimero noted that consultations were done with his community with regard to its inclusion in the Magisterial District and expressed his joy that residents would now be able to have improved access to justice under the law, describing what preceded as “injustice done to us within a justice system”.

Justice Nareshwar Harnanan described the opening of the District Court Office as a culmination of the partnership among the branches of government and the institutions, which fall under their purview.  He said, “You’re witnessing an act which will have real impact on the lives of the residents of this district. The operationalising of this District Court Office at this time brings much hope to the more efficient dispensation of justice in this community and its environment, realising the thrust of the Judiciary’s mandate to improve and ease of access to justice for all involved.”  He also noted that President Granger’s readiness to participate in the event underscores his commitment and Government’s willingness to support the initiatives of the judiciary in expanding access to justice throughout the regions.”

Former Chancellor, Mr. Carl Singh, who was recognised for the role he played in ensuring the construction of the Court Building at Lethem, along with Director of Public Prosecution, Ms. Shalimar Ali Hack, Deputy Crime Chief, Mr. Michael Kingston, Commander of ‘F’ Division Superintendent, Mr. Ravindradat Budhram, UN Resident Coordinator, Ms. Mikiko Tanaka were among the special invitees.  Other members of the Judiciary, residents and school children also attended the event.

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