The problems within the judiciary in terms of the timely dispensation of justice continue to worsen and perhaps will continue to do so unless a more proactive approach is taken by all involved in the process. But before improvements materialise, our propensity to make excuses – real or imaginary – must be examined.
Yesterday Madam Justice Jacqueline Cornelius brought up the subject of the delays in the system while explaining the rationale behind granting bail to murder accused. She spoke quite accurately on the rights of murder and other accused to have timely trials. She also addressed the number of cases reaching the court and said her court had been given an “insurmountable task” of a docket of over 400 cases to deal with between September 2015 and 2016. Of course, those “400 cases” were not all murder cases but capital offence was included among the number.
Madam Justice Cornelius explained that five murder cases from that batch were adjudicated and another 15 guilty pleas were accepted among over 70 of those 400 cases. Though she did not specify the nature of those 70 cases, we can only assume that those guilty pleas were for the lesser count of manslaughter or some other indictable offence. There is no history in Barbados of anyone pleading guilty to murder over the past four decades. We would venture to state that no one in Barbados has ever pleaded guilty to murder. An attempt to do so by an accused in the 1990s was disallowed though he was subsequently convicted.
The learned court official indicated that a lack of resources was one reason for delays in the delivery of justice. She noted there were accused on remand who had indicated a desire to plead guilty but a lack of resources in “the typing and administration” of their depositions hindered progress. If this is the case then that is a national disgrace.
But let’s look at the process, especially as it relates to a murder investigation and trial. An accused is arrested and charged for murder by police. That individual is remanded. The investigator then has the responsibility of preparing a case file that will include civilian statements, police statements, post mortem report, in the event of a firearm being involved there will be the ballistics report which falls within the category of a police report, there is a photo album which also falls within the category of a police report. There might also be the necessity for a report from the Government laboratory on other trace evidence found at a crime scene.
The point is that in most cases the work to be done is completed in the Barbados jurisdiction. There may be rare instances where deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) evidence has been collected and testing is required. There has been the occasion where such has been referred overseas. But generally, these matters are investigated and concluded on home soil.
Taking Barbados’ small population into consideration and that we are not the murder capital of the world; that prior to the late 1990s and 2000s, murder accused were not granted bail despite the legislation to do so; and that it did not take six or more years to start such cases; the question must be asked – what has gone so wrong with our judiciary?
A young man was last week granted bail on a murder charge after spending five years on remand and not one piece of evidence has to date been led by the prosecution. That is not only an institutional shame but also a national embarrassment. Again we ask – why have the wheels fallen off the wagon?
We suggest that the problem is systemic. Firstly, why are police files not reaching the courts in a timely manner? Indeed, why are they occasionally not reaching the courts at all? Is it a case of bureaucratic police delays? Is it a case where over a period of time promotions to senior positions have been so chaotic that the supervision of those files to be presented to the law courts has been compromised? Whatever the case may be, the problem starts with the production of case files and is then exacerbated at the court trial stage.
In 2016 one cannot or should not be using the excuse of “typing and administration” of accused depositions as a reason for the Supreme Court not being in a position to accept guilty pleas from accused. That is the mother of all nonsense and speaks to a status below Third World. We are appreciative that Madame Justice Cornelius has highlighted this problem and we feel her pain.
And what about those cases that do reach the courts? It is time that a cap be placed on adjournments initiated by defence counsels as well as the prosecution. We reiterate that there is no human, technical or extraterrestrial reason for that matter, why five or six years should pass without evidence being led in a murder case. One day some bold magistrate will dismiss a murder case for lack of prima facie evidence being led after too lengthy a period of delays. The ensuing outcry from family and friends of the deceased might lead to the lighting of a fire under those who can do more than just talk about this disgrace.
We have noted with interest that there have been some cases involving persons of means or high profile that have been adjudicated either at the Magistrate or Supreme Court with greater dispatch than the norm. But that is another matter.