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Legal amendments passed in Senate expected to reduce case backlog

By Elesha George

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Two legal amendments that seek to regulate how quickly cases can be tried for both civilians and legal professionals were approved by the Senate on Tuesday.

The first is the Jury (Amendment Bill) 2021 which seeks to reduce the number of jurors on a panel from 12 to nine people for cases that require trial – usually criminal matters.

The principal act – the Jury Act of 2009 – allows 12 jurors to sit on a panel to hear a case and up to five additional jurors in the case of a capital charge.

If a juror dies or for whatever reason is unable to continue with the proceedings, with the exception of a capital matter, this number could be reduced to nine – meaning that the trial could still go ahead with just nine of the 12 jurors.

However, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the government says it is considering the safety of the jurors and the members of the judiciary, as well as accused persons.

In addition, the pool of people who qualify as jurors within the state is limited, as only non-public sector workers are able to serve as jurors and, even then, further restrictions apply to who that person can be.

For these reasons, the amendment will reduce the number of persons forming the jury from 12 to nine ordinarily, and further from nine to a cap of seven in the case of deaths, absence or incapacity of jurors.

Opposition Senator Richard Lewis, in supporting the amendment, called for the number to remain at nine even after the scourge of the Covid-19 pandemic has passed.

“I don’t feel like life will ever be the same again and I think going forward, Madame President, that we maintain a number of nine,” he remarked.

His bid was supported by other senators including government Senator Maureen Hyman-Payne.

“If we had nine jurors before then I don’t know why we can’t stick to nine jurors, and it makes sense then you’re less disruptive to the population, you have an uneven number which is important because you will always have to have a unanimous verdict or a majority verdict, but I don’t see that any damage is done,” she explained.

Senator Hyman-Payne also suggested to her colleagues that the list of people who qualify to be jurors should be extended outside the current age limits.

According to the principal act, only persons between the ages of 18 and 70 can serve as jurors.

The jury pool is further reduced to several other considerations, including that the person must be a citizen of Antigua and Barbuda or must have been a resident in Antigua and Barbuda for at least five years before being eligible to be a juror.

The act also exempts a person suffering from a mental disability, deafness, blindness or other permanent physical disability which, in the opinion of the judge, would make that person unsuitable to serve as a juror; a person who has been previously convicted of an indictable offence, and has not received a free pardon; a person who cannot read and write the English language and understand the same when spoken; and a person who is bankrupt or has entered into a deed of arrangement with a creditor.

Furthermore, the senators agreed to make changes to the Legal Profession Bill which would primarily increase the number of persons allowed to sit on the Disciplinary Committee whose job is to hear complaints brought against attorneys.

“What is important is that, if there is an issue that needs to be addressed or to be dealt with because somebody from the legal profession is stepping out of line as we would say, that there is a committee that can deal with that situation,” noted Mary-Claire Hurst, Leader of Government Business in the Senate.

The explanatory memorandum for the amendment quotes the Attorney General Steadroy Benjamin as saying that the change was deemed necessary because of a surge in matters being brought before the Disciplinary Committee and to ensure that matters are heard in a timely manner.

Attorney-at-law and government Senator Gail Christian said the changes show the commitment of legal professionals to operate with integrity, noting however that she was advised that there is an average of only four disciplinary cases a year going before the Committee.

“The real issue is that you can hardly get a panel constituted when members have to recuse themselves so you want to make sure that there is no backlog because persons have to recuse so you increase the panel,” she explained.

The Disciplinary Committee will now consist of the President of the Bar Association and nine other persons to include two people who do not practice law, appointed by the Chief Justice after consultation with the Council and the Attorney General.

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