Something rather peculiar is happening. And it all has to with the administration of justice in this island.
We will not regurgitate the frequent complaints related to the seemingly endemic sloth within the judiciary. The Caribbean Court of Justice has already damned Barbados for this in its Winton Campbell vs the Attorney General appeal ruling of 2009.
But what we seek to highlight today is the seeming confusion, where none should be, with respect to preliminary hearings in indictable matters and the need for a system of paper committals. Monday, September 8, marked the third occasion in two years that our esteemed Chief Justice Sir Marston Gibson has articulated the need to end preliminary inquiries at the magistrates’ courts and introduce a paper committal system in Barbados.
“Preliminary inquiries should be abolished. The preliminary inquiry does not serve us well, has not served us well, is not serving us well and we really need to get rid of it.”
This was Sir Marston back in December, 2012. Fast-forward to 2013 and the annual Foundation Old Scholars Association’s Robert Thomas Memorial Lecture held at Church Hill, Christ Church.
“Your constitutional right is to a process which determines innocence or guilt –– that is, a trial. You have no constitutional right to a preliminary inquiry and I am in no doubt that if that issue ever went before the Caribbean Court of Justice, [they] would decide the same thing. So why retain it?”
That was Sir Marston then. And Sir Marston last Monday: “For sometime now, we have been promised an amendment to the Criminal Procedure Act, which would abolish PIs and that committals for indictable offences would be done entirely on paper,” he said, while speaking at the opening of the 2014/2015 legal year at the Supreme Court. Sir Marston went on to state that the British Privy Council had previously held that there was no constitutional right to preliminary inquiries.
“There is therefore no judicial reason why we still have PIs and the consequential remand problem,” he bemoaned.
We agree with everything the erudite Sir Marston has said. But here is where the mystery begins. There is already a paper committal system in Barbados. It was introduced to the courts of Barbados in the 1980s.
There are on record matters that reached the Supreme Court via the paper committal system without going the way of the magistrates’ court. So why is there this attempt at reinventing a wheel that first rolled more than 25 years ago.
We suggest that Sir Marston seek out some of the retired police prosecutors and magistrates of that period and make the discovery that paper committals are nothing new in Barbados. But what should be Sir Marston’s major probe is to unearth the reasons why the paper committal system was allowed to come to an abrupt halt.
He should make enquiries as to whether there is any veracity to suggestions then and now that the demise of the paper committal system could be linked to the fact that attorneys-at-law, as is customary, were “properly briefed” for their appearances at the magistrates’ court and were then “properly briefed” again for their appearances at the Supreme Court in the same matter.
In essence, paper committals had the potential to erode significantly the earnings made by lawyers at preliminary hearings. We do not doubt the capabilities of those legal brains who laid the groundwork for the introduction of paper committals in the 1980s. But we find it somewhat puzzling that Sir Marston is now calling for an amendment to the Criminal Procedure Act “which would abolish PIs, and that committals for indictable offences would be done entirely on paper”.
If that is his call, the question we must ask is: Was the introduction of the paper committal system in the 1980s done within the perimeters of the law? For almost three decades no legal official has stated on record that there was any illegality in the initial use of the paper committal system. So we ask: What is really going on in Barbados’ judiciary? What are the stumbling blocks to greater efficiency in the island’s judicial process?
We cannot and should not have a system where cases of indecent language are adjourned more than twice. We cannot and should not have a system where cases of simple assault take more than a year, sometimes three, to be adjudicated. We cannot and should not have instances where people are remanded for more than four years without trial.
The time for talk has long passed. The time for action is now. The ball is in your “Supreme” court, Sir Marston.