Barbados has become the first Caribbean Community country to be presented with new international guidelines for sexual offence cases.
The Model Guidelines for Sexual Offence Cases in the Caribbean, launched today at the Courtyard by Marriott in Hastings, Christ Church, form part of the multi-million-dollar Judicial Reform and Institutional Strengthening (JURIST) project, a five year regional Caribbean judicial reform initiative funded by the Canadian Government.
They are intended to provide internationally-accepted best practices for the management of sexual offence cases in the region and offer a rights-based approach to the treatment of complaints and vulnerable witnesses, including children involved in sexual assault cases.
Director of the JURIST project Dr Penny Reedie told the launch these guidelines would first be implemented and tested here before being shared with the rest of the Caribbean.
She added that several other initiatives were in the pipeline, including a special court for sexual offences.
“For the JURIST project, gender equality is a cross-cutting theme and this means that every initiative considered for funding must be viewed through a gender lens,” Reedie said.
The guidelines cover such matters as case management for sexual offences at both the pre-trial and trial stages, ongoing care and support for vulnerable witnesses and complainants during and after trial, and guidance and sentencing in sexual offence matters.
Offender rehabilitation and management with emphasis on juveniles are also areas covered, as well as collection and management of court data on sexual assault cases.
Protocols for justice sector actors that support the court in evidence gathering, such as police and medical practitioners, are also embraced in the guidelines.
In addressing this morning’s launch, Chief Justice Sir Marston Gibson identified the length of time it takes to conclude sexual offence cases as a persistent problem.
Sir Marston noted that some of these cases, which most of the time involve females, endure such lengthy delays that the victims become adults and move on with their lives, only to be advised by the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions that the matter is up for trial.
“Now she has to relive the trauma of nine years previously. And what we are discovering is that a lot of those victims say no,” he said, adding that as a result, the victims end up losing their rights.
“What I am grateful for in the launch of these model guidelines is that the model guidelines are first and foremost, rights based. They assume that the victim is not reduced to being part of the backdrop,” the Chief Justice assured.
The island’s top judge also said the judiciary could no longer be part of a system where the rights of victims were being ignored, and that the guidelines would not be used in isolation, as the courts here were working on other initiatives to help reduce the backlog of cases clogging up the system.
Sir Marston said a workshop on sentence indications and guilty pleas would be held on November 3 and 4, with stakeholders such as magistrates, judges, police and prosecutors.
“In our sentence indication/guilty plea workshop one of the central features of the practice direction now in draft, that there is going to be room for victims impact statements. We refuse to relegate the victim to the backdrop,” he stressed.
Magistrates will also soon have before them, a document that guides them in hearing domestic abuse cases.
The JURIST project is being implemented by the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), which was represented at today’s launch by Madame Justice Maureen Rajnauth-Lee.
However, in the foreword to the document, CCJ President Sir Dennis Byron described the guidelines as “a remarkable achievement” for the Caribbean.
“They are the first of their kind that seek to take a comprehensive, collaborative and systemic approach towards addressing the investigation, prosecution and adjudication of sexual assault cases,” he wrote.
However, he stressed that the development of the document ought not be seen as the final goal, with success depending on implementation of the standards.
“These guidelines should therefore not only be on the desk of every justice sector stakeholder whose duty requires her/him to treat with sexual offence matters, but should be frequently used as a reference in guiding and improving justice delivery in these cases. It also provides a benchmark to which every judiciary should aim to achieve,” the CCJ head wrote.