Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Charles Leacock, QC, today called for an end to trial by jury as he made yet another appeal for an overhaul of the justice system, which is virtually crumbling under the weight of a backlog of thousands of cases.
Leacock told participants at a Regional Security System (RSS) course on prosecuting drug offences that there are over 10,000 cases awaiting trial in the Magistrates Courts here and another 800 in the High Court, with 200 being added every year.
“That shows you the level and gravity of offending that takes place in our society. As such, the criminal justice system has been challenged to cope with this reality . . . and as such we have to find new methods of addressing this new reality,” Leacock said.
One such method, he said, was to abandon trial by jury and introduce judge-only trials, which he said would be perfectly constitutional in virtually all seven member countries of the RSS.
“The constitutions of most of our countries require that trials should be conducted by an independent and impartial tribunal. It does not say, necessarily, trial by jury,” Leacock said, reiterating that the time had come to reexamine the need to continue with that system for all indictable offences.
According to the DPP, over 22 Commonwealth countries, including Belize, have abolished jury trials for criminal matters.
“With the continued increase in cases and the large volume of cases to be tried, and with the limited and finite judicial time that’s available, we should seriously consider whether trial for all indictable matters, especially drug matters [and] money laundering, should be tried by jury,” Leacock argued.
The country’s most senior public prosecutor added that judge-only trials would also curb jury tampering, jury intimidation and witness tampering, while arguing also for the acceptance of witness statements, saying there was too much reliance on oral evidence in some cases.
“We cannot continue to dress up 21st century challenges in 18th century clothes,” Leacock said.
The DPP told the participating police officers that drug trafficking and offending accounted for about 60 per cent of all offences, including murder and domestic cases.
“The robberies, the thefts, the burglaries, are invariably done by persons who are looking to feed their drug habit, who are seeking to make a quick buck by depriving others of their property. And on the wider scale the homicides and other serious offences that are committed usually have some tangential connection with drugs. Some are directly related to drive-by shootings, some are directly related to domestic abuse where a member of the household is on drugs or taking drugs or is excitable because of drugs.
“So the linkages with the level of offending in our society and the drug trade have been so interconnected, that it accounts for easily about 60 per cent of the level of criminality,” Leacock revealed.
Last July, a Bill to abolish preliminary inquiries in Magistrates’ Courts in a bid to reduce the backlog of cases was introduced to the Lower House, with broad support from both Government and Opposition.
In leading off debate on the Bill, Attorney General Adriel Brathwaite had said the Magistrate’s Court (Amendment) Bill 2016 would reduce unnecessary delays in bringing criminal, civil and traffic proceedings to conclusion.
Parliamentarians also expected the legislation to alleviate or reduce problems caused by the unavailability of witnesses to give evidence.