National Assembly passes bill to abolish preliminary inquiries

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Guyana’s criminal justice system is poised for greater efficiency with the passage of the Criminal Law Procedure (Paper Committal) Bill 2024, which abolishes preliminary inquiries.

The bill was given the green light on Monday as the National Assembly got underway at the Arthur Chung Conference Centre (ACCC), Liliendaal.

Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs Anil Nandlall, SC, as he made his presentation on the bill in the National Assembly on Monday

It provides for the 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.

Presenting the bill for its second reading,  Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs, Mohabir Anil Nandlall, SC,  pointed out 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.

Delving into the tremendous impact that the bill’s enactment would have, the AG highlighted that currently, oral inquiries take a minimum of three to four years to be completed.

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,” AG Nandlall expounded.

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,” the AG explained.

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.

Minister of Education Priya Manickchand making her presentation in support of the new bill on Monday

Minister of Education, Priya Manickchand also spoke in support of the bill. She explained that lengthy preliminary inquiries in sexual offence cases often retraumatise victims by forcing them to relive their experiences.

According to the Minister, they can also lead to the cases falling apart entirely.

“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 education minister said.

She added, “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.”

Member of Parliament Sanjeev Datadin during the debate on the new bill in the National Assembly on Monday

The bill was also endorsed by Member of Parliament, Sanjeev Datadin, and Opposition Members of Parliament Khemraj Ramjattan and Geeta Chandan-Edmond.

This piece of legislation is now expected to bring Guyana on par with jurisdictions across the Caribbean and the Commonwealth that have already abolished the use of the preliminary inquiries.

It features three parts and 26 clauses, and can be accessed at the Parliament of Guyana’s website: https://www.parliament.gov.gy/chamber-business/bill-status/criminallawprocedurepapercommittalbill2024

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