KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent — A British legal expert helping with the revamping of the criminal justice system in the Eastern Caribbean believes that preliminary inquiries should be abolished.
A preliminary inquiry determines if the state has enough evidence to justify a trial. It is intended to safeguard against putting people in jeopardy of being convicted in a trial without the state having sufficient evidence to prove the case.
If, after hearing the evidence, the magistrate is satisfied that there is enough evidence that the person could be convicted, then the person is committed to trial at a higher court.
Witnesses often testify twice: during the preliminary inquiry and also at the trial.
“Why call witnesses twice? We can call witnesses just once at the trial and then their evidence can be tested,” Criminal Justice Advisor to the Eastern Caribbean in the British High Commission Daniel Suter said, referring to preliminary inquiries.
Suter on Wednesday, on Jomo Thomas’ “Voices” on WE FM, discussed the Prosecutors’ Code recently launched in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Suter spoke of the deficiencies in the local court system saying that delays, often caused by procedures and the manner in which matters are investigated, were one of the main concerns.
“What I am looking at is to make investigators work more closely with prosecutors at an early stage. … What I can see as a good way ahead is abolishing preliminary inquiries. I don’t think that they are systems that allow for justice in as much,” Suter
He further said that preliminary inquiries also delay trials and accused persons should be tried “at the earliest stage” since this relates to human rights.
“It is [also] not fair for witnesses and victims that matters are prolonged for that period of time,” he further said.
Suter further emphasised the role of the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) in determining who is prosecuted.
He objected to the police performing the role of arresting, interviewing, investigating, charging and then prosecuting an individual, as is generally the case at the magistrate’s courts.
“My personal view is that that’s unconstitutional and that it should be the DPP who determines the matters that are prosecuted both in the Magistrate’s Court and also the High Court.”
He said that with the implementation of a national prosecution service, police prosecutors, would become part of the DPP’s office.
In this way, the DPP would be fulfilling his constitutional role of managing prosecutors going through the Magistrate’s Court and “maintaining that objectivity and independence,” Suter said.
He said that police prosecutors who do not become members of the national prosecution service could return to investigating or study law.
Suter also addressed the issue of prosecutors passing the “evidential stage” and the “public interest test” before going to trial.
“Within the code for St. Vincent, it says that there must be a reasonable prospect for conviction. So, if all the points to prove for an offence are made out and the prosecutor decides ‘Yes I believe I can get a conviction on the basis of the evidence that is produced to me by the police,’ the evidential stage is passed.”
He, however, cautioned that it should not always be the case the even if there is sufficient evidence that a person should be prosecuted.
Prosecutors, Suter said, should consider, on a case-by-case basis, the potential long-term negative impact of prosecution on a person’s life.
He said if a prosecutor, after such considerations, decides not to move forward with the case, the crime would still be recorded and prosecutors might not be as lenient with repeat offenders.
The Prosecutors’ Code speaks to this in that it sets out the parameters in which a prosecutor decides whether to prosecute.
“… [T]he public needs to know … what are the rules of engagement that the prosecutor makes the decision by and the public interest test can be one that can cause a lot of debate. And therefore the code sets out a number of examples where the public interest stage can be considered,” Suter explained.
“It is a debated point but there is something there to secure justice and the reason for the code is to ensure there is transparency, objectivity in relation to any decision being made, because, of course, they can be critical decisions,” he explained.
Suter also suggested that police interrogators tape or video record their interview of suspects, saying that this could help to protect the credibility of the police.
He further noted that the changes being proposed to the Eastern Caribbean court system are not “U.K.-centric”. The U.K., he said, can learn much from other systems around the world.