While the independence of the judiciary is often couched in lofty concepts about separation, one from the other, of the three arms of the state, the essence of it all is empowering, securing and protecting the judiciary and its individual members in their fearless and uncompromising defence of the fundamental rights of the citizens.
To ensure that independence, constitutions – including Guyana’s – provide elaborate mechanisms and safeguards to protect the judiciary and its members. These include security of tenure; salaries that are fixed and not subject to a vote by the National Assembly; Parliament can only add to the powers and jurisdiction of the Supreme Court but cannot curtail them; the power to punish any person for their contempt; separation of the Judiciary from the other branches of the state; and immunity from criminal and civil actions in respect of judicial decisions.
Despite this formidable armory, Rudolph James, a Professor in constitutional law, in The Constitution of Guyana published in the 2006 Special Issue 35-36 of Transition, a publication of the Institute of Development Studies of the University of Guyana, writing of the conduct of the judiciary during an earlier era noted that while the leadership of the country set about to miniaturise the judiciary, the “Guyana judges largely contributed to their subservient status.”
Professor James was optimistic that with the commitment to democracy expressed by the new ruling party in 1992 “one expected a transformation of the judiciary …” But a decade later James lamented the many acts of indiscretion of the leadership of the ruling party including the late Mrs. Jagan, current President Jagdeo, Dr. Roger Luncheon and even the government’s high ranking judicial officers, acts that would in a truly democratic state be treated as contempt of the court. Instead, Mrs. Jagan won a nod of approval from a senior counsel when in his and the presence of the then Chancellor she disdainfully threw over her shoulders a judicial notice.
The onslaught has continued, sometimes with the approval of some of the very judges whose sacred duty it is to ensure the independence of the judiciary and their own. They have not raised their voices as Jagdeo undermined the judiciary with financial and fiscal incentives, embarrassed its membership by challenging their competence and judgment, emasculated them with laws that are clearly in violation of the Constitution and dared them to caution him when he pronounces on matters that amount to contempt of their proceedings.
The Time Limit for Judicial Decisions Act is only the most recent case of the legislature seeking to control the conduct of individual members of the judiciary. But Jagdeo whose capacity to use and misuse public money will go down in presidential folklore knows that the judiciary’s independence can be compromised both at the personal and institutional levels. For the latter the tool chosen is the Fiscal Management and Accountability Act 2003, the most insidious piece of legislation the PPP/C has passed to control some key constitutional bodies including GECOM, the Audit Office and the judiciary. By making the Supreme Court a budget agency, the judiciary’s independence has been made subordinate to the legislative and the executive arms, bringing it under the control of the Minister of Finance. Moreover the judiciary is treated on the same basis as the regions and ministries whose financial misdeeds are legendary.
The Act seems clearly repugnant to several articles of the Constitution. Article 122 A (1) provides that the “courts and all persons presiding over the[m] shall exercise their function independently of the control and direction of any other person or authority; and shall be free and independent from political, executive and any other form of direction and control”, while Article 122 A (2) makes all courts “administratively autonomous and shall be funded by a direct charge upon the Consolidated Fund.”
When an entity like the judiciary, the Audit Office or Rights Commissions, or a payment like the public debt is funded by a charge on the Consolidated Fund it is included in the Estimates as a block sum and does not require a debate or subject to a vote by the National Assembly: Article 218. And Article 217 sets the mechanism for the payment of the sum so charged by requiring that the “moneys charged …shall be paid out of that fund by the Government of Guyana to the person or authority to whom payment is due.”
To add clarity and reinforce the court’s independence even in financial and administrative matters Article 222 A states that the expenditure shall be by way of an annual subvention. But by making the judiciary a budget agency, it now has to answer to the Finance Secretary about its affairs and is required to provide information and explanations to the National Assembly. Worse, under the Act the Finance Secretary can designate who the head of the judiciary should be for purposes of the Act!
Not that the Constitution expects a lower standard of accountability or financial management in the judiciary than it expects of budget agencies. Indeed Article 122 A (2) imposes on the courts the obligation to “operate in accordance with the principles of sound financial and administrative management”, similar standards set for budget agencies.
The questions being asked is if the judiciary, the guardian of the constitution and the protector of the citizens, can be so easily emasculated, what hope is there for the citizens? If it cannot defend itself, how will it defend them?