In perhaps one of her most appealing addresses at the commencement of any given Law Year of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court, Chief Justice, Dame Janice Pereira, spoke at length on what she said was “the movement towards an accessible court” for the people of the eight member States and Territories of the OECS, including Anguilla.
She gave that assurance in her address for Law Year 2016-2017 in a live transmission, from the St. Lucia headquarters of the Supreme Court, to the simultaneous special sittings of the court in its member jurisdictions on Tuesday, September 20.
At the outset of her address, the Chief Justice noted that the court will be observing its 50th Anniversary on February 27, 2017 which she described as quite an achievement and which will be widely celebrated. She continued: “I think it is fair to say that our court has grown from strength to strength, remaining steadfast to our mandate in striving to provide access to a system of justice that is fair, efficient, accountable and independent. This is the yardstick by which we must be held accountable by the citizens of the region whom we serve. The concept or notion of equal access to justice, or access to the court, is so well-known that it may well be considered as being unnecessary to restate.”
The Chief Justice further said: “We are all aware that in constitutional democracies, such as ours, within our OECS grouping, and where our constitutions are the supreme law of our land, that they provide for access to the court for the purpose of protecting not only those rights and freedoms expressly recognised therein, from actual or threatened infringement, but also a mechanism for the promulgation of laws by which private rights and obligations are to be governed and observed.
“The concept then of access to justice and access to the court is fundamentally rooted in the observance and protection of the rule of law which is the foundation of any democratic society. It is therefore worth taking a moment to ponder whether the rule of law would have any meaning if there is no access to justice. Equal justice and equal access to justice must not be allowed to become the purview of the rich or the powerful. For then, it would not be considered justice – far less equal access to justice.
“The stride to achieve equal justice may be viewed as one of the highest ideals consistently pursued by any legal system grounded in the acknowledgment, respect, and observance of our basic human rights. One of the vital principles of the rule of law is that laws should be accessible, clear, precise, and open to public scrutiny. The courts must be accessible, affordable, and disputes resolved without excessive delay. When one thinks of access to justice, what often comes to mind is the ease by which an individual, group or entity is able to gain access to the courts to seek redress for grievances consistent with human rights charters and domestic and international law. However, access to justice runs deeper than just the improvement of an individual’s or entity’s accessibility to the court or their ability to gain legal representation.
“There can be no adequate access to justice if persons are unable to utilise the justice system because it is physically or financially inaccessible; where citizens are unaware of their legal rights; where the means of access are so myriad in complexity or in disproportionate fetters; or where the legal system is weak. There cannot be equal access to justice where discriminatory laws, rules, or practices insulate and permit gender biases to persist or which allow the oppression of the weak, the poor and the vulnerable. Similarly, we must ask ourselves how child-friendly are our laws and procedures and, by extension, our courts? Access to justice and equal justice therefore occupy a broad spectrum along an ever-evolving continuum shaped by our social norms and values which themselves are in a constant state of evolution. Access to justice, therefore, includes legal protection, legal awareness, legal aid, enforcement and all the initiatives which are geared towards ensuring that all persons can have their voices heard; exercise their rights; challenge discrimination; and hold decision-makers accountable.”
Newly-appointed Attorney General, Mr. John McKendrick QC, Ms. Jean Dyer, President of the Anguilla Bar Association, and Ms. Ivenia Benjamin, Senior Magistrate, were earlier permitted by the presiding Judge, Justice Cheryl Mathurin, to address the court. Earlier, also, Justice Mathurin inspected a Police Guard of Honour as part of the ceremonial opening of the court.
Mr. McKendrick spoke about the importance of lawyers, the justice system, its wide applications – and other related matters in society including, the protection of the minority from the majority and the rule of law. He said, among other things, that it was his privilege and role, as Attorney General, with the assistance and participation of all in the court room, to diligently and humbly work to ensure that the rule of the law is adhered to and that no one is above the law.
Ms. Dyer spoke about the work and achievements of the Bar Association over the past year. She was particularly happy with the passage of the Legal Professions Act which she said heralded the dawn of a new day. “Firstly, the Anguilla Bar Association is no longer a voluntary organisation,” she stated. “It is now a corporate body and membership is mandatory if an Attorney wishes to practice law in Anguilla. To my mind, a statutory body, mandated by the House of Assembly, will go a long way in protecting the public interest. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly from the public’s perspective, is that the Legal Professions Act makes provision for the establishment of a discipline tribunal which has the power over the Attorneys, here in Anguilla, to strike off the roll, suspend or fine an Attorney.”
She was grateful to former Attorney General, Mr. Rupert Jones, and the Minister of Home Affairs, Mrs. Cora Richardson-Hodge, who worked tirelessly with the Anguilla Bar Association to ensure the passage of the Legal Professions Act during the preceding Law Year.
The Senior Magistrate, Ms. Benjamin, reported that the employment of trained assessors in the Juvenile Court had made a significant difference in its performance in terms of handling juvenile matters. She also reported that Anguilla was the first jurisdiction in the OECS to have a website where members of the general public can assess information and educate themselves about the functioning of the Magistrate Courts. Further, she spoke about improving the registry of vital statistics, this year, to put it on par with regional and international standards and practices. The registry holds pertinent information on all births, deaths and marriages. Ms. Benjamin reported that there had been occasions when information on births was withheld by the health sector until maternity bills were settled, resulting in births not being registered for up to three months. Steps have now been taken to discontinue that practice.
The Senior Magistrate also reported that, in some cases, records of marriages were not transmitted to the Judiciary by Marriage Officers in a timely manner, within the stipulated fourteen days. In some instances there were delays of up to five years. As a result, a meeting was held with all Marriage Officers when the matter was dealt with.