The Court of Policy: Guyana’s Oldest Political Institution
The Court of Policy was for centuries a dominant governmental institution in colonial Guyana (Guyana National Trust photo)
The Court of Policy was for centuries a dominant governmental institution in colonial Guyana (Guyana National Trust photo)

By Tota Mangar

THE Court of Policy was for centuries a dominant governmental institution in colonial Guyana. As a matter of fact, this body could be safely regarded as the oldest political institution in the country.
The Court of Policy has its origin in the Dutch designated Council of Policy and Justice [Raad van Politie and Justice] in 1718, the year when the constitution of the Essequibo Council was significantly altered.

That institution attended to the affairs of the Dutch colony of Essequibo in its initial stage and it comprised   the Dutch Commandeur, the Secretary and two managers of plantations owned by the Dutch West India Company.
In 1739 the seat of government was removed from ‘ Huist Nabi’, Cartabo point to Flag Island now popularly known as Fort Island and the Court of Policy and Justice was expanded to six members to include representatives of private plantations as well as those of the Dutch West India Company.

Further constitutional change took place with the opening up of Demerara for cultivation by Laurens Storm Gravesande. In particular the year 1750 witnessed the appointment of Gravesande as Director-General of Essequibo- Demerara and a separation of the Council of Policy of Essequibo and Demerara from the Council of Justice. With the considerable rise in importance of the younger colony, Demerara, a decision was taken to have separate Councils of Policy for each colony in 1772. This situation prevailed until 1787 when there was once again a single Council of Policy for the two colonies. By this time the institution consisted of the Director- General of the united colonies, four official members and four unofficial members. The unofficial section was essentially representatives of the powerful planter class. The Director -General as President had the casting vote.

The Dutch colonies of Essequibo- Demerara and Berbice were finally ceded to the British through conquest in 1803. Formal cession was acknowledged by the 1814 Treaty of Paris and in 1831 the three colonies were united into the colony of British Guiana. As a consequence the British inherited the Dutch system of government- a system which was to remain in force for a very long time. Interestingly enough, such a situation was allowed to persist through Article One of the 1803 Capitulation Treaty which stated that the ‘colonists were to retain the existing laws, customs and political institutions’.  No doubt it was the very nature of the inheritance that assured planter class dominance of political power and which led to our constitution being referred to as ‘ unique in the Empire ‘.

It therefore meant that the Court of Policy continued to be in existence in a unified British Guiana and following emancipation in 1834 this important body was made up of the Governor and five officials and five unofficials. The official members were the Chief Justice, the Attorney- General, the Colonial Receiver- General, the Immigration Agent- General and the Government Secretary. At the same time the five unofficial members came exclusively from the planter class through a system of indirect elections. In actuality these members were nominated by the College of Electors or Keizers, a body dominated by the plantocracy due to the extremely high property qualification for the franchise. As in the case of the Director-General during the Dutch era, the Governor presided over the Court of Policy. He had the casting vote and this seemed to ensure a government majority. But significantly, this majority was more apparent than real especially when one recognises the fact that some of the official members had vested interests in the plantations or were serving as advisors to influential members of the plantocracy from time to time.
In any event, The Court of Policy as a political institution was the legislative body since it had the power to ‘ make, ordain and establish laws for the order, peace and good government of the colony ‘. Members of the Court of Policy along with the planter-based College of Financial Representatives formed the Combined Court which was the institution which exercised control over the colony’s financial affairs.

The high degree of power enjoyed by the plantocracy inevitably led to abuses, controversies and even political stalemate in the late nineteenth century and all of these contributed to the numerous calls for constitutional reforms. In particular pro-reform administrators, and a number of complementary factors including a tolerant and responsive Colonial Office, a depressed sugar industry, economic diversification, village development, a keen and vibrant reform group, a demanding and sympathetic public, a growing middle class, a somewhat radical and professional class, an adventurous group of prospectors and a partly encouraging press all contributed to constitutional change in 1891.
In the main some of the material changes which were embodied in the 1891 Constitution Bill were the enlargement of the Court of Policy to sixteen members-  the Governor and seven official and eight unofficial members, the abolition of the College of Electors, direct election of the unofficial section of the Court of Policy in the respective constituencies, the widening of the franchise, an additional property qualification for electives of the Court of Policy, the right of the Governor to dissolve the Court of Policy at any time and a specified quorum.
These were significant developments as within years of the 1891 Constitutional change interest groups other than the highly influential planter class, as for example, merchants, barristers, doctors and other professionals began to gradually and successfully challenge planter class candidates at elections.

There was a major review of the constitutional system of British Guiana when Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, Major E.F.L Wood, visited the colony in 1922 as part of his extensive investigation of Government of the British West Indies. This was followed, four years later, by a Parliamentary Commission visit and its Snell- Wilson Report which criticised the division of the legislature into the Court of Policy and the Combined Court thus; ‘ This peculiar constitution is the result of the accident of history and not of logic or sound theory… there is much to be said for merging the functions of the two bodies into a single Legislative Council ‘.
In the end the Court of Policy sat for the final time on the 17th of July 1928. This body was effectively terminated with the implementation of Crown Colony government by Great Britain in July, 1928 over two hundred years after its Dutch birth. Its replacement was the new Legislative Council.


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