Guyana to abolish preliminary inquiries

July 09, 2024 in Regional

Guyana has become the latest Caribbean Community (CARICOM) country to abolish preliminary inquiries allowing for the implementation of paper committals.

Parliament on Monday approved the Criminal Law Procedure (Paper Committal) Bill 2024, providing for implementation of paper committals, which involves reviewing the evidence and arguments presented by both the prosecution and the defence in written form, rather than conducting an oral in-person hearing.

Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs, Anil Nandlall, SC, who piloted the legislation, said that the time for paper committals is long overdue.

The concept was first introduced to Guyana’s criminal justice system in 2010, through the Sexual Offences Act and Nandlall noted that currently, oral inquiries take a minimum of three to four years to be completed.

He said the paper committal process saves time and resources by eliminating the need for witness testimony and cross-examination during the preliminary inquiry stage. This will inevitably save judicial time, reduce the backlog of criminal cases and reduce the prison population on remand.

“If a person is not on bail, then that person is remanded to prison for this period. This is one of the main reasons for overcrowding in the prison system of our country,” Nandlall said.

He said that the expenditure for the upkeep of these persons during this period and associated transportation costs also places an extraordinary financial burden on the state.

Moreover, the protracted period of the remand can deprive the accused person of their right to a fair trial.

“In short, the oral preliminary inquiry is an extremely protracted exercise and it also has, at least in Guyana, some unique provisions, whereby the prosecution is required to lead all the evidence available, and if six months pass after the committal, the prosecution is prohibited from leading any further evidence,” Nandlall added.

The bill adjusts these provisions. According to the Explanatory Memorandum, the amended clause seven of the bill provides for the admission of evidence and sets out the timeline for which relevant evidence should be filed by both the prosecutor or person acting on behalf of the prosecutor or, the accused or counsel on behalf of the accused.

Education Minister, Priya Manickchand, in her contribution, said lengthy preliminary inquiries in sexual offence cases often re-traumatise victims by forcing them to relive their experiences.

“Moving to paper committals instead of oral preliminary inquiries will address these issues and free up much magistrate’s court time, which is badly needed to deal with other matters and reduce the backlog of cases.

“The paper committal system for the conduct of these cases results in better compliance with Article 144 [of the constitution], which mandates a fair trial for defendants and accused persons. The greater good is here is that we will have…less trauma for victims of different times of crime,” the education minister added.

The bill was also endorsed by opposition legislators Khemraj Ramjattan and Geeta Chandan-Edmond.

The legislation brings Guyana on par with jurisdictions across the Caribbean and the Commonwealth that have already abolished the use of the preliminary inquiries.