While a chorus of lawmakers, many of them lawyers, cheered today’s proposed amendments to the Bail Act, their practising colleagues of the Bar were sounding notes of disapproval.
This morning in Parliament, Attorney General Dale Marshall announced that the changes to the legislation would ensure those accused of either murder or firearm offences carrying a minimal ten-year prison sentences are not eligible for bail within two years after being charged, except in special circumstances.
But Queen’s Counsel Andrew Pilgrim and fellow lawyers Mohia Ma’at and Verla Depeiza have questioned the effectiveness of the measure.
Depeiza, who is also the leader of the Democratic Labour Party, said the amendments could be seen as “tampering with the autonomy of the judiciary”.
She said the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) as well as the Privy Council in London had previously frowned on such moves.
“I am thinking about sentences that are at Her Majesty’s pleasure (indefinitely) they have gone by the wayside; I am thinking about mandatory sentencing for firearms, that too has been struck down and most recently the mandatory death penalty.
“In that vein then keeping anybody for two years before they can be granted bail flies in the face of these decisions that have already been made,” Depeiza said.
She stressed that while the DLP and the nation understood it was going through trying times, there was no need for a ‘knee jerk’ reaction.
“There is a feeling in a country and you can’t get away from that, but what you cannot do is also step aside from our obligations to the country. We understand the feelings but we can’t be making legislations based on feelings. You need to be dispassionate in making legislation to make sure you have all of the right considerations at the time.
“So I think they need to go and come again, this is the problem with making a knee-jerk decision, you tend to get it wrong. They need to go and come again.”
She added that there needed to be clarity on what those special circumstances entailed.
Pilgrim told Barbados TODAY he believed the move was reactionary. He reinforced the legal principle that a person was presumed innocent until proven guilty.
The Queen’s Counsel said: “I always learnt the law in a particular way and a simple way that in our jurisdictions and in civilised countries someone has to prove our guilt and I hold dear the maxim that people are innocent until proven guilty. God forbid that someone should slip a bullet into somebody’s car now and the assumption will be that person has to do two years.
“We’ll see how it turns out but I just hope that along with this measure we’re taking other measures to find out where our young men really are at because that’s really the big question.
“You’re going to find that two years is going to run very quickly in a justice system that is not guaranteeing anyone a trial really under six or seven years. But we all want it to improve the behaviour of our people, we are all reactionary people and just as people on the street are reactionary people in Parliament are reactionary as well.”
Ma’at said he was completely against the move. He said the legislation would not help in removing the case backlog in the High Court.
“To me in my mind that does nothing, because all you are really doing is housing an accused person for two years in a criminal environment for them to learn more about criminal activity.
“In doing that, what is going to happen is that it is going to be a case where because that accused man is already in jail and can’t move for two years, then there is no rush to get the matter moving forward. You are going to find a situation now where people are just languishing away in jail and nothing is happening with their matter. It is not a deterrent so what really is it there to serve. I am not in support of it at all,” he told Barbados TODAY.