Something is wrong with Barbados’ judicial system. And it reeks to high heaven. But it involves two pillars of our legal process –– the Royal Barbados Police Force and the law courts –– and the silence in this society is disturbingly deafening.
The maxim that justice delayed is justice denied has often been articulated by those in the legal fraternity, whether from within the precincts of the law courts, at official speaking engagements, or in relaxed afternoon mode lounging with fermented elixir in hand. But are we serious about this long held legal tenet?
The evidence suggests we are not as driven as we should be. Chief Justice Sir Marston Gibson has on numerous occasions spoken of the need for improvements in the functioning of the judicial process. He has publicly bemoaned the existence of a serious backlog of cases in the system and the need to rectify this situation as a matter of national urgency.
To the credit of our judicial administrators, though, the advent of the continuous sitting of the Supreme Court is a development worthy of great praise. But we are yet to hear anyone put forward a solution to rectify situations such as that of Mitch Andy Williams?
And who is Mitch Andy Williams? The name itself is, we daresay, unimportant. But its bearer’s circumstances are upsetting because Mitch Andy Williams is not the exception. In many instances, it appears, his case represents the rule.
This convict was recently sentenced to a term of imprisonment for illegal possession of a firearm, and during the case it was revealed by the presiding judge that he had spent 1,793 days on remand. Otherwise stated, Williams spent almost five years on remand waiting for the completion of a matter dating back to 2008.
That anyone should wait so long for justice to be served is as ridiculous as seeing a Hans Christian Andersen-created magistrate or judge entering the elaborate facility on Whitepark Road in new clothes. Barbados is simply too small a jurisdiction, where all parties to proceedings are usually present, for as uncomplicated a case as illegal possession of a firearm, or a camel, for that matter, to necessitate a remand period of five years before being brought to a conclusion.
That is not justice delayed; that is justice comatose.
Sir Marston, at a function two years ago, spoke of delaying tactics by attorneys-at-law, the tardy or non-production of police case files, among other infelicities, as part of a systemic problem that needed to be addressed as a matter of urgency. He described the situation as “unacceptable” and “unbelievable”, while pointing out that in an age of advance technology, the Barbados situation which he found on assuming the office of Chief Justice should not exist.
Lamentably, despite his best efforts, it seems that the status quo has, by and large, remained the same. But Mitch Andy Williams’ is not the worst case scenario. The judiciary has acknowledged, through dictate and from its sentencing policy, that remand time is in itself incarceration and should be deducted from convicted time. Hence, the sensible policy of crediting remand time has been instituted for convicted persons.
But what about remand time that evolves into exoneration? There have been cases where persons on remand have been found innocent of the charges brought against them or have had their cases discontinued. It is in such situations that remand periods of the like of 1793 days become particularly galling.
What are the rights of remanded persons? What is the liability of the state? How can an individual be compensated for a period of remand where he is subsequently freed without conviction, or more to the point, deemed by his or her release to be innocent?
This is unchartered territory, but we are sure it is not one lost on our Chief Justice or the legal fraternity. Since one cannot predict the outcome of a matter before the court, the onus is on judicial stakeholders to ensure greater efficiencies at the initial stage of these matters. The office of the Commissioner of Police should ensure that case files reach the law courts with as much alacrity as is humanly possible. There must also be a concerted effort to ensure that police witnesses are always available when required.
Both police and court marshals must ensure that civilian witnesses, once in the local jurisdiction, are found and made available for court proceedings. A paper committal system was introduced more than two decades ago to speed up litigations and ease the backlog of cases within the magistracy. What has become of it? How widely is it being utilized, if at all?
While we are cognisant of the need for lawyers to be “properly briefed” and of the pressures that may be brought to bear on the Legal Aid Office, an entire year, far less five years, is too long for such “briefing”, or lack thereof, to frustrate the judicial process.
It is not an easy task facing Sir Marston and those entrusted with the functioning of our legal processes, but there is an urgent need to move the tenet of “justice delayed is justice denied” beyond the realm of mere rhetoric.