St. John’s Antigua- The Attorney General (AG) was highly critical of the police’s prosecution of cases in the Magistrates’ Court, calling their performance “dismal.
“Our prosecutions of summary matters by the police in the Magistrates’ Court, our record is dismal,” he said. “Time and time again, either files have been lost, witnesses have not appeared because they have not been informed, the police prosecutor is not ready, or the investigations have not been completed,” he said.
Attorney General Justin Simon QC was speaking in Parliament yesterday during the Budget Debate. He said the police blunders in the court have a negative effect on the lives of defendants and witnesses alike.
“The defendant who has to appear every time in court may well be a working person and has to get time off at no pay, as well as the various witnesses; it becomes a recurring decimal and it is not a good situation,” he said.
The attorney general applauded the director of public prosecutions (DPP) and his team for their performance over the past year and for achieving a 91 per cent conviction rate.
“We have recognised the need to increase the personnel in the DPP’s office. They handle murder, fraud, drug offences, sexual offences, and wounding and now with ONDCP, the whole issue of money laundering cases has to be dealt with by the DPP’s office.”
Simon said a Crown prosecution service would be established with the assistance of the United Kingdom. The new system will incorporate police prosecutors in the Magistrates’ Court with criminal prosecutions in the High Court, all under the supervision and direction of the DPP.
“We will, of course, expect that we will have police officers, particularly those police officers who have had the time and have had the ambition to go and study law,” the AG said. “We need to stop putting them in the traffic (department) or other areas where their skills cannot be utilised.”
Simon said a similar prosecution system is established in St Lucia, with St Vincent and Dominica seeking to implement in the near future.
Meantime, the attorney general outlined several other moves the Ministry of Legal Affairs will be making to reform the justice system. Several of these changes are aimed at reducing the population of the prison.
The ministry is looking at making amendments to legislation to allow magistrates to accept guilty pleas in regard to committal matters.
“In respect of the committal matters, there may well be defendants or persons accused who may be willing to plead guilty. But because of the fact that it’s a committal matter the magistrate doesn’t have any jurisdiction to accept the guilty pleas and to deal with those persons. They will still have to wait for trial before the criminal assizes in the High Court,” Simon said.
“We think if we address that situation, that will also reduce the number of persons who are awaiting trial at the prison.”
The attorney general reissued his intention to amend the Probation Act to include a community service component, saying that not every offence should land someone in Her Majesty’s Prison.
He added that his ministry would work with the Ministry of Social Transformation to develop sufficient supervision and direction for the programme.
Simon also mentioned previously announced measures such as the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, which will allow for some offences to be expunged from one’s record.
He also spoke about plans to institute the prison as a Magistrates’ Court with the narrow scope of dealing with prisoners on remand.
The attorney general said people who have been granted bail but are unable to meet the conditions every week, have to be transported from the prison to the Magistrates’ Court for their applications to be dealt with and for them to be given the opportunity to gain bail again.
“We have recognised that is a very laborious process. It also has its risks in terms of security,” the attorney general said. “So we will take away the whole security risk and the issue of personnel, and transportation to be taking them back and forth.”
Also, Simon said a three-man committee established to investigate the incidents at the High Court have reported to him.
“I commissioned and investigation into the running of the high court because there were a number of inefficiencies which have been brought to my attention,” he said. “Based upon their report a number of reform measures have been taken in the high court which are continuing.”
Simon said the organisational structure of the court has been changed with the expectation of heightened efficiency as a result.
“We are also addressing the issue of computerising the records, births and deaths as well as marriages in the civil registry because we have bound books which date way back,” the attorney general said.