SIGNIFICANT strides have been made in the attempt to overhaul and improve Guyana’s criminal justice system through revamping the country’s archaic legal infrastructure by implementing a gamut of initiatives aimed at modernising the sector and creating an environment conducive to the efficient and effective management of the sector. The initiatives are being implemented as part of the US$8 million Support for the Criminal Justice System (SCJS) Programme, which is funded by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and is implemented by the Ministry of Legal Affairs and seeks to help tackle prison overcrowding, by reducing pre-trial detentions and increasing the use of alternative sentencing, among other measures.
The programme is divided into two components: the first seeks to reduce the use of pre-trial detention, especially for individuals accused of minor offences, by providing better legal assistance to individuals accused of non-violent offences, improve the prosecutors’ ability to handle cases according to the seriousness of the offence, strengthen the judiciary, and design and implement a restorative justice programme. The second component seeks to increase the use of alternative sentencing by the criminal justice system in Guyana which includes strengthening the country’s legal drafting functions, modernising probation services and implementing a pilot project at the magistrate court level to apply alternatives to imprisonment to non-violent offenders.
Attorney-General and Minister of Legal Affairs, Anil Nandlall, S.C., and SCJS Project Manager, Indira Anandjit, pronounced on some of the major achievements made under the programme since its launch in 2017 at the programme’s 2021 mid-year review on Wednesday at the Arthur Chung Conference Centre. One of the most significant outcomes of the Support for the Justice System Programme thus far has been the establishment of Guyana’s first Law Reform Commission, the members of whom were sworn in on August 11, 2021 before President, Dr. Irfaan Ali and will assume their duties on September 1, 2021.
HAD TO BE AMENDED
The Law Reform Commission Act 2016 was enacted by the former administration, but was significantly flawed in relation to the appointment of Commissioners. That Act was eventually amended by the Law Reform Commission (Amendment) Act 2021; the amendment of the Act caters for diversity and inclusivity to be reflected as part of the commission. “The appointment process in the principal Act was not encouraging, not liberal, not what we would like to be in a law reform commission … we feel that a law reform commission must be generated from society itself and must bear a close relationship with important stakeholders’ organisations in that society,” Nandlall said.
“Law reform must capture the aspirations of the people in the society, the dynamism of the society; law reform must capture that and make that part of the laws so that our laws can continue to have a realistic connection with the aspirations of our people, or else our legal system will become obsolete and our people’s vision will be far ahead and when that happens, you have social and other problems,” he added. In alignment with the component of the programme which seeks to improve the country’s prosecutorial apparatus at the magistracy level, an initiative whereby Bachelor of Laws (LLB) graduates from the University of Guyana and other recognised universities, will be able to become prosecutors at the magistracy level is being pursued. From time immemorial, police prosecutors have been prosecuting every type of offence at the magistracy level, regardless of whether or not they are qualified. Nandlall opined that while these police prosecutors have done an exceptional job while going up against seasoned lawyers, the system must be reformed to represent the best interest of the State.
NOT A ONE WAY STREET
“Justice is not a one way street … the public interest must also be taken into account and that scale of justice must be balanced … and we have to ensure that while we continue to improve fair trials for the accused … at the same time we need to improve the State’s capacity to protect the public interest and the victims of crimes,” Nandlall said.
The Ministry of Legal Affairs has already established contact with over 80 LLB holders, enough to place one of these individuals at almost every magistrate court in the country, who will undergo a prosecutorial training programme at UG. The syllabus of that programme is being wrapped up and the programme is expected to commence in 2022, Nandlall said.
A Mental Health Act, a Bail Act and Sentencing Guidelines are also in the works, which are intended to significantly help to achieve the objectives set out by the SCJS programme. The Bail Bill seeks to have more consistent and uniform application of granting of bail while the sentencing guidelines will seek to have uniform and proportionate sentences being administered by the courts.
A legal aid clinic was established in January 2020 as part of the SCJS Programme following consultations for a state-owned programme which focuses on minor, non-violent offences to provide legal representation for these defendants who are parties to such cases. The clinic provides representation for ‘walk-ins’ as well as for inmates in pre-trial detention.
Since its establishment, the clinic has dealt with 122 cases of which 77 were completed and the 45 are pending. The clinic saw significant successes with 57 cases being dismissed, with 47 per cent of cases being dismissed by the third court hearing.
In relation to the restorative justice aspect of the programme, 140 persons received restorative justice training, 30 of whom were toshaos; of the 130 persons, 12 persons were trained as certified restorative justice practitioners by the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP).
Nandlall explained that through restorative justice, the background of the offender will be scrutinised to enlighten on the cause of the crime and tackle the issue at the root in an attempt to prevent a repetition of the offence by the offender and to derive methods conducive to deterring others from committing similar offences other than harsh archaic penalties and allow for re-integration of offenders into society.
NOT LEFT BEHIND
With the digital revolution overtaking every sector, Guyana’s legal sector will not be left behind. The SCJS has contracted Synergy International Solutions and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) to develop and implement a case management system network which will connect key justice system institutions and allow them to access and input data, share information and generate reports.
In terms of institutional strengthening, the SCJS has refurbished the Georgetown Probation Office and its satellite offices in Regions One, Seven and Eight. The SCJS also provided a gamut of equipment to the police and the Director of Public Prosecutions Office in an effort to promote a comfortable and efficient work environment.
In an effort to build upon the current capacity of the justice sector, the SCJS has trained 50 Senior Justice Practitioners in Leadership Development while the training of probation officers was also undertaken in an attempt to develop a cadre of specially trained probation officers.
However, the programme has not been without its challenges. Of the four pieces of legislation slated for review and revision under the SCJS, only two have been completed thus far due to lengthy delays in completing the stakeholder review process.
In addition, despite sensitisation of key stakeholders, the general public is still largely unaware of the project and its direct benefits in relation to accessing justice such as legal aid and restorative justice. Also present at the mid-year review was IDB Country Representative, Sophie Makonnen, who hailed the project as making substantial progress.