By Elesha George
The passing of the Criminal Proceedings Bill (Judge Alone Trial) Bill has been temporarily held back after Attorney General Steadroy Benjamin moved a motion to establish a special select committee that will facilitate further consultation on the new legislation.
For months, 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. It introduces criterion where a judge can hear a case without a jury.
Benjamin said the five-member committee will examine the provisions of the bill and report back to the Parliament so the matter could be heard at its next sitting.
The decision came after Opposition Leader, Jamale Pringle suggested that “no meaningful discussion” could be made towards the bill because a different version had been presented to Members of Parliament only 24 hours before the sitting.
He also argued that the second and third readings of the bill would have been pushed through the parliament that same day.
“How can [I] and any members on the opposition side make any meaningful contribution to this bill? We’re not lawyers, we’re not in the field of law to say that we can understand and go and make meaningful representation on this bill,” he stated.
The attorney general, who noted there were no significant changes from the two other versions, none-the-less conceded that further consultation was necessary and so asked that a special committee be formed to bring any concerns forward and to facilitate further consultation within communities.
“I am asking, if possible, that the bill be sent to a special committee so we can have not only the lawyers but the entire community so they can see what’s going on,” the AG requested.
He initially selected the Opposition Leader and MPs Trevor Walker, Samantha Marshall and Michael Browne to sit on the committee while he chairs the meeting.
However, Barbuda MP Trevor Walker, while supporting the AG’s decision, objected to having MP Browne sit as a member of that committee on the basis that he is currently involved in a serious legal matter in the High Court that is likely to go to trial.
“So, he’s going to sit on a committee that determines how he’s tried,” Walker remarked, saying, “that cannot be right”.
He explained, “Mr Speaker, we’re going to discuss a very important piece of legislation that’s gonna determine whether or not, as the AG presented, we’re gonna have trials by judge alone or with jury. The honourable member is in a situation, Mr Speaker, where he has something before the courts and it cannot be perceived as not being a conflict of interest if he sits on the committee”.
MP Browne did not contest Walker’s position and the selection was withdrawn by the attorney general who replaced Browne with member for St John’s Rural South, Daryll Matthew.
“Ordinarily, the member of All Saints West would have been a beautiful person. He is a lawyer; he has other qualifications but then your points are well taken,” Benjamin noted.
The latest version of the bill, which the AG said was fully supported by the Bar Council and other stakeholders, will only require hearing by a judge on certain offences, including property matters, financial crimes, conspiracy and incitement to commit an offence. It does not include sexual offences.
For other types of offences, an accused person can consent to being tried by a judge without a jury and will be informed of their options during the first hearing of their case.
The prosecution can also apply to the judge for a trial to be heard without a jury if there is danger of jury tampering or intimidation of witnesses.
Neither party will be able to change their minds, unless under special circumstances, once they have decided on the type of trial they want.
Once the judge makes a decision, he/she must outline their decision, their reasons and the facts taken into account.
The bill is, however, not permanent and 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.
The committee will decide on a final version of the bill and the matter will be heard during the next sitting of parliament.