Review finds weak policing, prosecution of sex offences

Sexual offence convictions remain considerably low in this country despite reformed laws and problems still persist in policing and prosecution, particularly with evidence gathering.

Cases are collapsing and many are not being prosecuted at the level of the High Court and recent data indicated that Nolle Pros (opt not to prosecute) are being entered in cases, largely due to a lack of evidence to prosecute.

Statistics show that between the period June 2004 and June 2010, there were 56 rape cases in the High Court and 19 ended with Nolle Pros (NP);  3 attempted rape cases, 2 NP; 37 carnal knowledge cases, 13 NP; 8 buggery cases, 3 NP; and 3 incest cases, 2 NP.

In a ‘Review of Policing and Prosecution of Sexual Offences in Guyana,’ researchers found that the relevant officers of the Guyana Police Force need to be exposed to and trained in a systematic way in areas of technological advancement which would improve chances of conviction in sexual offence matters.

There was also consensus that policing and prosecution need to “get it right” and that the investigative conduct and calibre of police officers need reviewing and updating. In addition, the relationship between the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Chambers and police prosecutors needs to be strengthened, especially with respect to bail and elements of offences under the new Sexual Offences legislation.

But the review found that all sexual offence matters must now be referred to the DPP prior to persons being charged, and that the DPP chambers is expected to get involved at a more early stage of the police investigations.

Rosemary Benjamin-Noble, attorney-at-law, presented summarised findings of the review yesterday at a stakeholder’s meeting and she observed that the legislation is not enough; there is also need for proper policing and gathering of evidence, in addition to prosecution being strengthened.

She noted that many High Court judges have commented on the poor quality of evidence which is presented before them in sexual offences trials, which reflects on the quality of the police work that went into the case.

On average there are two sexual offence cases every month at one Magistrates’ Court in Guyana, according to the review. Benjamin-Noble said that the study only touched on one court, noting there are similar cases before other courts.

However, the review found that money is creeping into court matters and victims, due to circumstances, are accepting compensation to drop cases. “Regrettably this happens in some matters,” the attorney told the meeting.

She mentioned also that delays often occur owing to the absence of case files and sometimes, heavy workloads for magistrates.

The issue of the workload later prompted a question from a stakeholder about whether there is a full complement of judges in the High Court to effectively address sexual offences matters given that paper committals are now in place.

Benjamin-Noble said that while continuous special training programmes are essential for the police, medical practitioners should be formally and better integrated into the legal process to strengthen prosecutions. In this regard, she observed that complete medical reports should be prepared and made a part of hospital records, particularly where foreign doctors were the examining medical practitioners.

What the review found was that judges are weary of the insufficient details on the medical certificates which are tendered in court, and suggested the certificate be reviewed with the aim of expanding on the details provided by broadening the criteria.

In addition, some judges pointed out that doctors are not always available to testify at trials. However, this was not an issue at the interior courts which sit quarterly.

The review also found that the lack of DNA evidence continues to pose challenges and remains a major medical limitation in the prosecution of sexual offences.

There was also mention of social services and Benjamin-Noble spoke of a lack of consistency in social service interventions. But she said too that social services are challenged by limited human and financial resources with out-of-town areas not being properly serviced.

Several stakeholders at the meeting including Co-Chairman of the Guyana Human Rights Association Mike McCormack, Justice Roxane George and Red Thread Coordinator Karen DeSouza spoke of the need for a more coordinated approach to addressing the issues. McCormack argued that while resources are a problem in the system, “many of the issues can be solved with better coordination.”

Justice George mentioned that there are challenges with regard to cases involving very young children saying that the system is still grappling with how to get a two-year-old to sign.

Further, the review found that serious consideration should be given to the establishment of a special court to deal with sexual offence matters.

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