Practising attorneys-at-law have generally given the “thumbs down” to the proposed amendment to the Magistrate’s Court Bill 2016, arguing that it would only transfer the current legal bottlenecks from one court to another.
They have also taken issue with the extension of the jurisdiction of the magistracy, arguing that more judges and prosecutors would have to be appointed to the High Court if any meaningful changes were to be made to the court system.
On Tuesday while leading off debate on the measure in the House of Assembly, Attorney General Adriel Brathwaite said Government hopes to eliminate the current bottlenecks in the court process with the abolition of preliminary inquiries (PIs) in the Magistrates’ Courts.
In support of his proposal, Brathwaite disclosed that in 2012 there were 5,247 preliminary inquiries, which is slightly more than the 5,239 cases lodged in the Magistrates’ Courts the previous year.
However, in response to Brathwaite’s claim that the abolition of PIs would address the backlog, criminal lawyer Angella Mitchell-Gittens contended that other steps would have to be taken to bring about such change.
She argued that the abolition of preliminary inquiries in the Magistrates’ Courts would only transfer the backlog to the High Courts.
“We need to put several other changes in place for the abolition of preliminary inquiries to be effective. I think that the magistrates’ jurisdiction probably should be increased so that everything does not have to go to the High Court. You would also need to increase the complement of judges and prosecutors for any abolition of preliminary inquiries to have any effect on the backlog of cases in the system,” the criminal attorney saidd.
She argued that “simple” cases in which the evidence was straightforward could be effectively adjudicated by a magistrate, leaving the High Court to deal with more complicated matters.
Her legal colleague Arthur Holder also expressed concern that the Government’s move would only transfer the backlog from the Magistrates’ Courts to the High Courts.
“I do not have a problem with the amendment as long as it expedites the dispensation of justice,” he said.
“My only concern is that you are trying to remove a bottleneck at one juncture and you are creating a bottleneck at another juncture. If Government wants to ensure that justice is expedited it has to make provisions at the High Court level in relation to the process,” he suggested.
Warning that the present backlog would remain if more judges and ancillary staff were not appointed to the High Court, Arthur noted that there were only two judges who sit in the Number 2 and Number 5 Courts, which hear criminal cases.
“So if you dispense with preliminary inquiries and you say that is going to fast track the process, I guarantee you it will not. You have to build the infrastructure for it. You have two courts that sit simultaneously, so what have you done?” Holder asked.
He also voiced concern over Government’s delay in appointing a magistrate at the Oistin’s Court, pointing out that the court had not been in operation since January this year.
Identifying other challenges at the Magistrates’ Court level, Holder noted that the District ‘A’ Criminal Court and the Holetown Magistrate Court were currently on vacation with no magistrates in place at either location. He also pointed out that the magistrate at Boarded Hall had been appointed to act as Master of the Supreme Court.
Also commenting briefly on the situation, attorney-at-law Verla De Peiza supported the move to abolish PIs, saying it was long overdue. She added that it was one of the steps that Barbados needed to take to get its justice system back on track.
Offering suggestions to improve the delivery of justice, the Government Senator said: “There are so many other things that we need to do and we will get them done. We need more judges [and] we need our courts to sit longer. That is not to say that our courts do not sit long, because a lot of people do not recognize that the High Court sits in the afternoon to hear trials, but there are several initiatives that need to be taken. This is one that we have gotten off the ground and hopefully the rest will be following shortly.”
However, another attorney-at-law, Alicia Archer, said: “The problem has to be looked at in a holistic fashion and it cannot just be the abolition of preliminary inquiries.
“Are you going to appoint more judges? No reasonable person can believe that a judge can deal with the backlog in the High Court, plus those ones that will be piled on with the abolition of preliminary inquiries,” she added.