“In the current pandemic climate, physical appearance is at a great personal and public health risk, which could mean life or death” notes the Bar Association of Guyana (BAG) as it objects to the imminent resumption of jury trials.
High Court criminal trials are reportedly set to recommence on October 6.
But the Bar Association has issued a press release stating that it has not been consulted on the date and or modalities for the resumption of jury trials in the High Court.
The association said that the practice directions and protocols to guide the trials in the context of the pandemic were only shared with the Association two days ago on request.
But the association finds those protocols lacking as no provision is made for testing. Also, there is a requirement for witnesses to remove their masks to give evidence. The association noted that this is in violation of good practices, guidelines, and Sections 10(f) and 12 of the Covid-19 Emergency Measures (No. 9). Among other measures, the association is dissatisfied that physical attendance of counsel and the jury is mandatory without a reciprocal provision for the presiding judge.
GBA said that it is conscious of the constitutional right of an accused person to a fair hearing within a reasonable time. But this right is not absolute and must be balanced against other considerations such as public health and other enshrined rights of citizens. “One right cannot outweigh the other.”
Jury trials all over the world have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Guyana is not peculiar in this regard. The association said that in Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago, with high infection rates, jury trials have not yet recommenced. Guyana’s reported rate is higher than that of Trinidad and Tobago with 4,026 cases and 65 deaths compared to Guyana’s 2,535 cases and 72 deaths.
The association noted that the decision to resume jury trials affects not only the Bench, Bar and accused, but also the public at large who are compelled by judicial command to appear either as jurors or witnesses, under the threat of penal sanction if they fail to do so.
GBA noted that while Guyana was paralyzed by a prolonged five-month election process concurrently with the COVID-19 pandemic, other jurisdictions which had the benefit of an operational Parliament were able to pass laws and institute procedures that adapt to keep the legal process moving forward while protecting and balancing the rights of all citizens.
The association stated, “While we recognize the efforts of the Judiciary to cope with the changes brought about by the pandemic, we now have a functioning Parliament. It is therefore important that these matters be given urgent attention so that the rights of citizens and the public health can be secured.”