Logjam in the High Court

It becomes more glaringly obvious with each passing Assize session that the backlog in the High Court, as far as criminal matters go, is unlikely to be cleared anytime soon, regardless of how many justice improvement programmes are conducted, unless there is a drastic increase in the human resource capacity of that court, that is more judges are appointed. And considering what obtains in the criminal system, there is every chance that there is a similar buildup in the civil system, despite the ongoing use of mediation.

In addition, given that a number of rape cases are discontinued at each session, likely because the passage of time causes the virtual complainant to become disinclined to proceed with presenting testimony, the question arises as to whether justice is actually being improved. Then there is the almost standard practice these days of guilty pleas to manslaughter being accepted in cases where there was clear evidence of murder up to the point of the culmination of the Preliminary Inquiry in the Magistrate’s Court. It is particularly disturbing when the murder was committed as a result of domestic violence. There are real concerns as to whether these ‘lesser count’ pleas are being accepted in the best interest of justice or as a means of moving things along in the hope of putting a dent in the backlog. Is justice really being done and do the victims, relatives of victims and virtual complainants (VCs) feel like they have received same?

At every Assize session, there is a long list of cases to be heard. In the last session, 141 cases were up for hearing in Georgetown only. A similar number is presented every three months when new Assizes open. Each case that is heard in court typically lasts about three weeks. Some are shorter (very few) and some are much longer. There have been rare instances where judges were only able to hear a single case for the entire session.

In light of this, how is it humanly possible for the two or three judges sitting at each criminal session to hear close to 150 cases? While Stevie Wonder would be in a position to discern the dichotomy between the DPP’s ‘gaol delivery’ and the current High Court situation, maybe someone in the Chambers of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) needs to do the Maths. And while the DPP Chambers is figuring that one out, maybe it can also check on the definition of doing the same thing every year and expecting a different result.

Even if there is a supposition that some of the cases will end quickly as a result of VCs withdrawing, witnesses not being found, or guilty pleas being made, the number of cases assigned by the DPP for each session is ridiculous. At the end of the last session, only 28 cases had been disposed of; 15 of them went to trial and 13 were discontinued for various reasons.

Meanwhile, in spite of millions of dollars in loans and grants being spent on improving justice administration, the actual system lumbers on, still in the 20th century. One sign of this is the Assizes, which were inherited from the British, but which according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica were abolished in modern England in 1971. Another sign is that to date the High Court has no website for cases to be posted electronically, as occurs in other jurisdictions, nor have any plans been announced with regard to this.

However, there have been patches of light, including the taking of testimony via Skype in several recent cases. And one hopes that the illumination will continue to the point where evidence recording and rulings in both the High Court and the Magistrates’ Courts become less of a burden as the use of electronic equipment to facilitate these tasks is factored in.

And while the High Court logjam continues, there have been countless issues in and among the high remand population at the Georgetown Prison. A large number of these prisoners are awaiting trial for major offences, including rape, murder and attempted murder; some of these offences are non-bailable. And although they have not yet been tried, some of those accused can be considered dangerous. Obviously, the volatility of the situation in the remand population is high. Therefore, the trials of such accused should be speedily and successfully concluded so that they can begin to either serve their sentences or change and become assets to society.

Adding their cases to a list when they do not stand a chance of getting a hearing does nothing to appease them. Recent events at the prison bear this out. Changing the shape of the judiciary by elevating deserving attorneys to magistrates and puisne judges, must go hand in hand with the infrastructural and other modern advancements being made.

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