Bar Association not in support of ‘judge alone’ trials

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By Theresa Goodwin

[email protected]

The Head of the Antigua and Barbuda Bar Association is insisting that the government should look to retrofit the courts to observe Covid-19 protocols as one possible solution to the resumption of jury trials in the High Court.

The government is currently exploring ways to resume jury trials that were suspended indefinitely due to the Covid-19 pandemic. One of the options that is now on the table is the proposed Criminal Procedure (Trials by Judge Alone) Bill 2020 which makes provisions for criminal matters to take place without a jury in some circumstances.

Last November, the bar association was asked by the attorney general’s office to review the bill.

On Sunday, president of the association, Attorney-at-law Lenworth Johnson, insisted that retrofitting the court to observe the necessary protocols should be one of the first steps.

“The general view of the bar is that we should put in place immediate Covid protocols to see if the backlogs [can be reduced]. If we are to go along with the ‘judge only’ trials, it should only be for the period of the state of emergency in Antigua and Barbuda, After the end of the State of Emergency there should be no Judge Alone trials,” Johnson said.

“Judgements are based on experience and maturity, and what the Judge thinks about the demeanour of the witness etc. A judge can be wrong, a juror can be wrong. I understand that most citizens would prefer to take their chances with a combined view of 12 or 9 persons instead of one,” Johnson added.

Johnson was also supported by another member of the bar association – Attorney Andrew O’ Kola, who said that he is not in support of the move at this stage.

He explained that the decision to move to a trial by a judge only is not based on any empirical data, or research.

“Without research, without something explaining why Antigua and Barbuda is unable to proceed with jury trials, or that something is wrong with the jury trials system, I would not simply support it on the basis of expedience given Covid-19.

“I do believe that before we remove this sacred pillar in our criminal justice system, there needs to be wider consultation and participation,” O’Kola said.

He commended the government for consulting with the bar association and added that the general public should also play a key role in the process.

Earlier this month, Attorney General Steadroy Benjamin said the government was giving serious consideration to the proposal, however, there would be wide consultation before it is implemented.

 According to the draft bill, the judge alone trial applies to people who are committed for trial, or are indicted for offences to include larceny, forgery, corruption, money laundering and other financial crimes.

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