With the COVID-19 pandemic lengthening the backlog of cases in the court, there is a need for an urgent action plan, attorney-at-law and former cabinet minister Michael Lashley QC has declared.
He said the current outbreak at HMP Dodds which has led to a lockdown of the prison, will only serve to make matters worse for the criminal justice system.
With the crisis at the prison, magistrates are only hearing new cases and urgent matters, with all other matters being adjourned.
No matters involving prisoners are being heard at the High Court.
But with the high frequency of new cases going to the lower court, Lashley has suggested that magistrates using virtual meetings.
Lashley said: “By now we should be looking at Magistrates’ Court by way of Zoom. The High Court is being done by Zoom now. The Magistrates’ Court is heavily trafficked and the risk of coming to the Traffic Court is a lot greater because the magistrates see all the new charge sheets and they even now have to do urgent trials.
“What has happened now is that we are going to have backlog on top of backlog on top of backlog because you have persons who were supposed to come down who were remanded and there are persons who filed in the High Court who now have to get new dates on top of new bail matters that would have been filed. The question is how we are going to treat to this. We now have to put a system in place to handle this backlog that we have to get back to where we were before.”
He suggested that bail hearings could go on in the absence of the accused once they gave their consent and agreed to by judges, defence counsel and prosecutors.
Lashley said the Bail Act could also be amended to make it optional for bail hearings to proceed with accused persons being present.
He also suggested that inmates awaiting sentencing who test negative for COVID-19 could have their matters heard via Zoom.
The veteran attorney-at-law acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic had shown the shortcomings of the criminal justice system.
Speaking specifically to the situation regarding Scottish national Ben Graham Ferguson, who was eventually taken to Dodds after he offered to pay an $8,000 fine with his credit card but was unable to do so because of a lack of online payment technology at the Magistrates’ Court, Lashley said a technological upgrade was necessary.
He said: “In an instance like this where he is seized of the money but because of his card, he cannot pay the Saturday. The question is whether he should be penalized but I will not get into that, I’m saying that this is really an area now that we have to look at, using technology within the Magistrates’ Court system and throughout the criminal justice system so that now he would be able to pay the same day and go on about his business because he has not gotten a custodial sentence and he spent [time at HMP Dodds] because of the inefficiencies in the system,” he pointed out.
Lashley said it was also unacceptable that visitors to the island could not pay fines with foreign currency.
He said: “I had a client who got a fine and his flight was about to go. He was a Nigerian and his flight was supposed to go at two o’clock and he had [British] pounds so we had to ask the judicial officer for the chance to get a person here to change that pounds into Barbadian currency to pay the fine so that he could get to the flight. I think that going forward those are some of the things that we have to look at and we can add reforms and make the necessary changes.”