Parliament on Monday passed the Witness (Special Measures) Bill, which allows for testimony to be given remotely and the disguising of the identity and voice of witnesses in some cases.
Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, who is also Minister of National Security and Legal Affairs, said the legislation strengthens citizen security and the maintenance of fairness to the virtual complainants and protects the society as a whole.
The legislation received opposition support amidst some concerns by Sen. Vynnette Frederick, a lawyer, that the bill did not amount to a full witness protection programme, and uncertainty about its financing.
In explaining how the law could be used, Gonsalves said that a person charged with incest may have a hold over the virtual complainant, particularly if the alleged victim is a young girl, whose father is accused of incest.
“You may wish to protect that witness in certain circumstances and the law does that. This law,” Gonsalves said.
He said that under the law, in some circumstances, the accused persons may not be able to cross-examine the accused directly, but only through that person’s attorney, or, in cases where the person does not have an attorney, one appointed by the court.
Gonsalves further said that the law will be useful in cases where crimes are committed against sailors aboard yachts.
He said that when crimes are committed against a tourist, that visitor may not want to return to the country.
However, under the new law, such a person will be able to give evidence via a video link or other electronic form, and said evidence will have the same weight as testimony in person inside the courtroom.
He said that the judge, where necessary, will warn on how to treat particular pieces of testimony.
He also gave the example of persons, such as “drug mules”, who are in a vulnerable situation and who fear for their lives.
“This [law] will be able to provide the protection, through a number of different ways …” Gonsalves said.
He said that often, with drug trafficking and money laundering, the persons who are usually the principal beneficiaries are not the ones who are usually caught.
He further said that the single greatest contributor of organised violence in the Caribbean, including in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, is “drug trafficking, and its ally, money laundering”.
He said that as part of the drug trade, guns come in from the United States, Latin America, and other Caribbean countries, particularly from the southern Caribbean.
“Make no mistake, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, these islands, lay in a dangerous neighbourhood,” Gonsalves said.
“And that is why in order to get at the persons who perpetrate these crimes, it is often necessary to provide very special protection for the witnesses,” he said.
He said that currently in SVG, it is not well known that witnesses from time to time have to get protection.
“Special arrangements have to be made for them. But what this law does, is to put it on a clear juridical footing and puts the matter squarely in front of the judge, or, in the case of the magistrate’s court, in front of the magistrate,” Gonsalves said.
He said that the Act shall come into force on a date to be determined by the Governor General, and that the Chief Justice is required to make rules to provide the underpinning.
He further said that there was a lively debate at the Select Committee stage about the constitutionality of denying the defendant the opportunity to cross-examine the witness.
That same section generated some discussion during the debate in Parliament.
Some of the lawmakers who spoke, including from the Government side, opined that the clause could be unconstitutional.
Gonsalves, during his response said that he did not agree with this view.
“This is a good piece of law to strengthen citizen security,” he said while presenting the bill.
Meanwhile, Sen. Frederick said that the Opposition agrees that the legislation is important.
She, however, said that she expects that a lawyer will test in court the constitutionality of denying the defendant the opportunity to cross-examine the virtual complainant directly.
She added that she knows that attorneys on both side agree that it is a question that will be taken up before the court.
She further said that the Prime Minister’s examples of situations in which the law can be used, are not theoretical.
She said that persons who play a role in administering justice in SVG will tell the stories of persons who are accused of crime and will wait until the virtual complainant who is a visitor, leaves the country.
Frederick said it is “a sore point” for those in the system who seek to see justice done, that some accused persons escape conviction because virtual complainants leave the country before they can give evidence.
“This law provides for persons to give evidence remotely. This sits well with those who also want to see justice done,” she said.
She, however, said that that based on what it taking place regionally, the legislation must be considered “a first go around” as the jurisdiction move to assist witnesses to come forward.
She noted that the legislation is not proposing an entire witness protection programme, adding that such a programme is needed in the country.
“We support the passing of this legislation, but we don’t want it to pass and lay there,” Frederick said.
She, however, said that mistrust of police must be addressed, adding that the country can have the legislation, even as police officers do not knowing how to threat with persons willing to come forward, and making people confident to come forward.
Opposition lawmaker, Sen. Linton Lewis, as well as Senators Jomo Thomas and Camillo Gonsalves of the Government side also spoke in support of the Bill.