By Latrishka Thomas
Once again, the Criminal Proceedings Bill (Judge Alone Trial) was dissected by some Members of Parliament for having several discrepancies.
For quite some time, members of the legal fraternity have been mulling this bill as a way to reduce the backlog of indictable cases that must go to trial, by introducing trials without a jury present.
But at the last parliamentary sitting, the bill was sent back to the committee stage.
A five-person committee consisting of Leader of the Opposition Jamale Pringle and MPs Trevor Walker, Samantha Marshall, Daryll Matthew, and Steadroy Benjamin, was formed.
But only the three Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party MPs attended the meeting, heard recommendations from the President of the Bar Association, Lenworth Johnson, and made their own suggestions.
Hence, when the bill was tabled yesterday in the Lower House, Walker was the first to highlight “ambiguities.”
He specifically tore apart Section 6 of the bill, which gives the prosecution the ability to apply for trial by judge alone in certain circumstances, such as when the trial is so complicated or lengthy that it would be burdensome to jurors.
“Who determines the complexity of a trial so that you have a judge alone? Who determines that?” he queried.
He then exclaimed: “This section is unconstitutional!”
He went on to question what will happen when an accused cannot afford legal representation to assist with making the choice of judge or juror.
“When it comes to having a decision like this to be made and one requires obviously legal representation, Mr Speaker, how is that funded if you can’t afford legal representation?
“I am saying at the end of the day, when we are going to put something like this in place, we have to ensure that we are clear and that there’s no ambiguity,” he argued.
However, when given the opportunity, the Attorney General then offered some clarification, stating that Walker’s concerns “are without foundation or without basis.”
MP Michael Browne, who was scrapped as a member of the committee due to an ongoing matter before the court, also shared some concerns.
“So, when it says here the accused person consents to be tried by a judge alone in accordance with this provision, the common man on the street is going to be asking the question: so in (A) I have the option to consent to judge alone, but is (B) saying that even though I consent to have a jury, the court can then reverse that to have a judge alone?” he asked.
“It creates an ambiguity for the regular man on the street,” he added.
Benjamin also clarified that the second option would only be available in instances where the defendant does not have an attorney, but he further indicated that free legal aid is available.
In the end, the bill was passed.
The bill specifies that only serious offences, such as murder, will require trial by both judge and jury.
On the other hand, crimes involving property, theft, forgery, drugs, money laundering, firearm, etc, can be heard with a judge alone, and an accused person can decide how he or she wishes to be tried.
For other types of offences, accused persons can consent to being tried by a judge without a jury present, and will be informed of their options during the first hearing of their case.
The bill is, however, not permanent as it includes a sunset clause that only allows the application of the bill for two years after it becomes law. It will automatically expire if not renewed after that time.