Chief Justice Dame Janice Pereira has called on member states of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court (ECSC) to include in their legislative agendas criminal justice reform measures.
“The criminal justice system is in dire need of robust reform,” the Head of the ECSC said during her annual address which was delivered last Tuesday, January 11.
It was aired live on the occasion of the opening of the law year 2022 which had been set to take place in the Virgin Islands this year. The ECSC opted for a virtual special sitting in the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Chief Justice was the first in a lineup of legal leaders, including Rene Baptiste CMG, President of the St Vincent and the Grenadines Bar Association.
“As I expressed in my last address, the time is ripe for our Governments to assist the judiciary by including in their legislative agendas criminal justice reform measures such as provision for the implementation of judge alone trials for specific case types within the context of the constitutionally guaranteed right to a fair trial,” the Chief Justice noted during the course of her comments.
She said that this method of trial is tried and tested in other courts in the region, and when “one considers the plethora of criminal offences triable by a magistrate there can, in my view, be no compelling or objectively reasoned opposition to its implementation.”
“Taking such measures would go a long way toward reducing the backlog of criminal cases in the OECS, with no adverse effects on the fairness of the trial process,” Pereira assured.
She commended the Government of Antigua and Barbuda for being the first of the court’s member states and territories to implement judge alone criminal trials in the High Court. The registry of the High Court in this country worked swiftly, along with the Government, to implement the necessary legislative framework for this purpose, she said.
She also commended the member state of St Lucia, who is in the process of drafting legislation to put such measures in place.
“I urge other member states and territories to capitalise on much of the ground work done in other member states and territories who are more advanced in these legislative reform processes, as we all seek to improve the safety, security, and by extension the economic wellbeing of our subregion,” the Chief Justice continued.
Pereira also suggested, “Another measure Governments may wish to adopt, short of abolishing the jury system all together, is legislative provision for smaller jury panels.”
Judge alone trials and trials with smaller jury panels will have many benefits, she said, including a decrease in expenditure associated with operating a jury system.
The Chief Justice noted earlier in her speech that there “is no question” that the pandemic has been devastating to the criminal justice system in the Organisation of the Eastern Caribbean States(OECS).
Jury trials had to be halted in some cases due to the inability of physical distancing.
“It simply remains the case that many of our courtrooms are too small and not fit for purpose,” she said, which is also an observation that the Chief Justice made in her address last year.
Pereira indicated that Covid-19 has exacerbated the situation, and also noted that another result is an increase in the number of persons on remand in already crowded prisons.
“The criminal justice system cannot remain at a standstill because of Covid. We must find ways to administer justice despite Covid. I therefore take this opportunity to once more call on the heads of Government of the OECS to seriously consider the necessary and urgent legislative reform which will aid the courts in the continued delivery of justice, less justice takes flight,” she urged.