By Jenique Belgrave
With victims of crime having to wait years for justice to be served, Judge Jacob Wit of the Caribbean Court of Justice is calling for a “robust” and “thorough” overhaul of the justice system.
Speaking on Tuesday as part of a panel at the regional crime and violence symposium at the Hyatt Regency in Trinidad, Justice Wit highlighted that it is not fair so many victims experience lengthy delays before their matters are tried.
“There are the sexual offences where a girl of 16 is raped, and then it takes 16 years or 14 years before that case is tried. What kind of justice is that? Now this lady is 30. She may be married, she may have children, she may have never told her husband about what happened to her when she was 16. And now you have to appear before the court and tell it all over again. So it’s no wonder that witnesses are not very happy to do that and that means that evidence evaporates and the guilty person might be freed,” he added.
The judge painted a similar picture of witnesses being made to repeatedly return to court.
“They come, they wait for hours, they are sent back. ‘Come back next month,’ et cetera, et cetera. That is not fair to witnesses.”
He insisted that the justice system must not only be fair for all involved, but it must be effective.
“It is true that a criminal justice system must be fair and must be seen to be fair, but above all, it must be effective in protecting the rights of all. In fact, a profusely ineffective criminal justice system can hardly ever be fair. So we recognise that the system as it is now functioning or actually dysfunctioning needs thorough overhaul. Small piecemeal changes cannot do the work. There needs to be a very profound look at our criminal justice system,” he contended.
On the first day of the symposium, Barbados’ Prime Minister Mia Mottley expressed concern about persons being out on bail for murder, which she recalled did not happen three decades ago.
Commenting on this, Wit explained that it is a direct result of the lengthy delays being experienced by persons awaiting trial. He agreed that this never happened before and that was because cases made it to court quickly.
Saying many countries across the English-speaking Caribbean are experiencing a heavy backlog in criminal cases because they inherited “the wrong (justice) system”, the judge put forward some suggestions as he insisted on much-needed improvement.
He said a “strong pre-trial process” must be created.
“There must be a sifting of cases because if more than 70 per cent end with acquittals, there must be something wrong with the system. In any properly functioning system, acquittals might be not more than ten per cent. If cases simply do not have sufficient evidence, they need to end in a release…There needs to be much more plea bargaining. That is what the Americans do where 70 per cent of all the cases are plea bargained. That’s why they can get their cases done. That’s only very small here. And the third point is to improve and broaden the judge-alone trials,” he advised.
Wit noted that the CCJ Academy will be hosting a conference in Barbados this October to look at criminal justice reform.