Home Headline Parliament empowers judges to oversee High Court cases permanently

Parliament empowers judges to oversee High Court cases permanently

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By Elesha George 

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The Lower House of Parliament recently voted to permanently empower judges to preside over High Court cases for indictable criminal matters by passing an amendment that ended a sunset clause in the Criminal Proceedings (Trial by Judge Alone) Act of 2021.

Originally introduced as a temporary measure aimed at tackling the backlog of cases exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the legislation’s sunset clause was extended twice before a proposal to eliminate it entirely. The move is now pending ratification by the Senate.

“The backlog has almost disappeared. Attorneys practicing at the criminal bar – criminal attorneys – were consulted, and are all in full agreement that this faction ought to be made a permanent fixture in our legislative development in the OECS,” declared Attorney General Sir Steadroy Benjamin. 

Sir Steadroy said the law is particularly important to deal with sexual offences cases where victims do not wish to be tried in front of a jury.

“Young women don’t want to go to court after years of an incident to speak about what happened to them. So, when you have a judge alone you deal with the judge,” he said.

Legislation was also amended for testimony to be given in a separate room from the accused, reducing the anxiety and fear experienced by victims of sexual crimes. 

A letter from the retired Chief Justice of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court (ECSE) — Justice Dame Janice Pereira, dated April 8, 2024 to the AG — strongly advised that the Act remains permanent to help ensure fair and impartial proceedings. 

The Act was the first to be passed in the ECSC, adding to Caribbean countries like Jamaica, Caymans, Turks and Caicos, Belize and Trinidad and Tobago. 

“This parliament, all of us, will be a part of legal history, of making it possible for this region, for this country to set the standards for other countries to follow,” the AG declared.

However, Member of Parliament for St John’s Rural West, Richard Lewis, highlighted what he called an “issue’ in the Bill which leaves a whole list of crimes exempt from the consent of the accused. 

There are 26 offences listed in the original act as indictable and must be tried before a judge of the court sitting alone without a jury, including the preliminary issue (if raised) of fitness to plead or to stand trial for offences.

In expounding on the issue, St Phillip South MP Sherfield Bowen argeed that the offences outlined in the Bill for mandatory judge alone trials violates the right of the defendant to be tried by a jury of his peers. 

“The accused person ought to have a say on whether or not he wishes to have his case heard by his peers or heard by a judge,” he said, adding that all offences should have the choice of who should try the case. 

“It should always be the accused who decides how he wants his case tried,” the attorney said. 

He also argued that a provision in the principal act that allows the prosecution to choose whether a matter should be tried by a judge alone, should be removed.

“I think that should be removed. It should always be the defendant who elects, the prosecution ought never to say “I want this matter to be tried by the judge alone.” 

Another issue he raised was the addition of inchoate offences like aiding and abetting, incitement and conspiracies which the changes made, making it mandatory for these matters to be tried by a judge alone.

“It is not fair to the public to remove their ability to be tried by people who are like them, rather than by a judge alone who might be of a different culture, different upbringing, different background,” MP Bowen insisted.

“We should not remove from the public the opportunity to be tried by your peers when the system is accusing you of an attempt to do something,” he added. 

After consideration in the committee stage, Sir Steadroy agreed to remove that section of the Act which he says may be reviewed at a later date.

He said the Act is likely to see more amendments as the law continues to be practiced.