A Bill to abolish preliminary inquiries in Magistrates’ Courts and reduce the backlog of cases was introduced to the Lower House Tuesday, with broad support from both Government and Opposition.
Attorney General Adriel Brathwaite who led off debate of the measure said the Magistrate’s Court (Amendment) Bill 2016 would reduce unnecessary delays in bringing criminal, civil and traffic proceedings to conclusion.
Parliamentarians also expect the legislation to alleviate or reduce problems caused by the unavailability of witnesses to give evidence.
Brathwaite said that in 2013 there were 5, 247 preliminary inquiries, slightly more than the 5, 239 cases lodged in the Magistrates’ Courts the previous year.
“Over the years there are very few new challenges in the court system. In many ways the challenges that we face in 2016 are the challenges that we faced in 2002 and many years back.
“I came across a note in 2002 from the then Attorney General [Mia Mottley] lamenting the high rate of crime in Barbados. An earlier Attorney General was also speaking about the backlog of cases in the court system,” Brathwaite told the House as he sought to explain the depth of the problem.
He stressed that under the current system the accused is entitled to cross-examine prosecution witnesses, call witnesses and give evidence, and that all of these procedures can take up to four years to complete while the accused remains on remand or is out on bail.
Government’s chief legal adviser made reference to a number of countries that had abolished preliminary inquiries for the very reasons that Barbados was seeking to do away with the process.
However, he acknowledged that its elimination would mean a lot more work would be transferred to the High Court at a time when there have been calls for the appointment of additional judges to the bench.
The Attorney General also pointed to the number of traffic cases clogging the Magistrates’ Courts, telling fellow parliamentarians: “We need to move to a regime of ticketing system for traffic offences because they [the courts] are not doing a good job of collecting the fines.”
In 2012 there were 11, 503 traffic cases and 14, 948 cases in 2013, according to Brathwaite.
The Opposition Barbados Labour Party (BLP) threw its support behind the new measure, but not before former Attorney General Dale Marshall made a point of advising the Freundel Stuart administration to address the root causes of criminal activity among the country’s youth instead of fast-tracking the cases to the Supreme Court.
Marshall recommended that the debate should be about paper committals where cases go directly to the High Court.
The Member of Parliament for St Joseph said the recommendation had been put on the table before and now was a good time to revisit it.
“The idea is not new because the early beginnings of the amendment began with the BLP. There were arguments among attorneys-at-law that they should get two bites at the cherry. As lawyers we liked to have two bites at the cherry because you could go through all of the evidence at the preliminary inquiry and see who is a weak witness and a sense of who is telling lies. There are some significant instances in Barbados where especially murder accused have been freed of charges at the preliminary inquiry,” the Opposition spokesman said.
He added that the preliminary inquiry was a system whose time and usefulness had been long spent, and it did not take into account the rigours of today’s judicial life cycle.
“I have been in preliminary inquiries that have lasted for many months . . . . So in theory and in practice it will hasten the time at which an accused person should receive his ultimate day in court. If we can go to paper committals, it will remove a huge burden around the necks of magistrates, because much of the magistrates’ time is spent doing preliminary enquiries. Therefore if you take that off their portfolio, it then means they have much more time to deal with the matters that would remain properly within their jurisdiction – the civil matters and the criminal matters,” Marshall explained.