We do not seek to take a cynical view of the recently launched Model Guidelines For Sexual Offence Cases In The Caribbean Region, which is an expensive initiative designed to contribute to the timely adjudication and the long-term reduction in case backlog for sexual offences. Indeed, we applaud any and every effort to expedite the completion of all cases running the gamut of criminality, whether they are adjudicated as summary or indictable offences.
The maxim that justice delayed is justice denied – though palpably reduced to mere rhetoric in Barbados – still has a place in our jurisprudence. Sexual offences, though not capital offences, are particularly heinous and are unconscionably intrusive of innocent victims. At the recent launch of the project in Barbados, a young lady bravely gave a harrowing tale of being a victim of sexual assault perpetrated by a member of her household. Then, Chief Justice Sir Marston Gibson outlined a scenario where a pre-teen victim of rape, eventually got her day in court nine years later as an adult. Sir Marston might have been making a point with his illustration, but such scenarios are very real in our jurisdiction and have occurred far too often. Thus, for all the good intentions of this initiative, the human element will determine whether it succeeds or is a dismal failure.
We are informed that the probe into sexual offences obviously starts with the report of these incidents. Then, there is the recording of statements from victims, witnesses, including those of the first complaint, if any, the visit to the scene of the offence for the collection of evidence and the taking of photographs. The victims are subjected on the day of their report to a medical examination for any trace evidence, clothing is collected, samples are collected and these are subsequently documented, secured and delivered to the relevant scientific laboratory for testing. It is a process that from the time of the victim’s report to the handing over of evidence for scientific analysis, can all be completed within 48 hours.
We understand that this initial investigation is the fastest part of the process. And it must be swift since the collection and preservation of evidence from the victim have greater value when done as quickly as possible after such reports are made. It is subsequent to this that the system has seemingly been found to fail victims of sexual offences in several instances. The alacrity of apprehending the perpetrator may depend on whether the victim knows his or her attacker, the ability of police authorities to track the suspect from any evidence or witnesses at their disposal, or simply, the effort police put into the investigation.
If the suspect is apprehended, we are told, the speed with which the case starts depends on the production of a case file to the court and the availability of civilian, police, medical and analytical witnesses. This process, we understand, can be frustrating as a result of the sloth in the production of police files to court, the return of documentary evidence from medical and analytical experts, attendance of witnesses to court when required, or if summoned, or if found at all. Defence lawyers can also contribute to delays in the system, mostly related to requested adjournments, or being “properly briefed” – in layman’s terms, being paid. Of course, the manual system of recording evidence, the availability of magistrates if matters are not done by paper committal, can also affect the speediness of trials. The length of time spent on the bench on a daily basis by officers of the court has also previously played its part.
But in all of this, once a suspect has been apprehended, no part of the process is so insurmountable that – according to many working in the system – should lead to a sex crime taking the inordinately long time some of them do in Barbados. The common denominator in this shameful let-down for victims of not only sexual offences, but crime in general, is the human element. It is the failure of human beings to commit to giving of their best, in a most timely fashion, at every junction of the process, to ensure that: justice is not delayed; that justice is not denied; that justice is not only done but that justice is seen to be done; that there is justice for all – both accused and yes, especially the victim.
There is no plausible reason why a process that involves collecting evidence and presenting it to a court of law, should take a decade or more to be adjudicated when accused, the victim, witnesses and all court officials reside in one jurisdiction.
At the launch of the initiative, director of the Canadian-funded project Dr Penny Reedie had this to say: “Our aim is to modernize and strengthen court systems, their processes and services, and to make sure that judicial officers and court staff are equipped with skills and confidences they need to deliver justice in a fair, predictable, efficient and timely manner.”
Dr Reedie’s comment was appropriate, eloquent and relevant. But, as our past has shown, if our fellow human beings do not commit to doing their jobs, as many have not been doing in the past, this initiative too – like others before it – will pass into nothingness.