by Oscar Ramjeet

The Trinidad and Tobago government has acceded to the request of Chief Justice Ivor Archie for judges alone — without a jury — to hear criminal cases.

This, however, can only be done if the accused person agrees.

A bill to this effect has been tabled in Parliament and it only requires a simple majority to become law — and not three-fifths as required in Constitutional amendments. This is because the bill seeks to delete the constitutional three-fifth rule.

Two former chief justices, Sharma and La Bastide (who was also the President of the Caribbean Court of Justice) also feel that the jury trial should be eliminated. Chief Justice Archie said jury trial causes undue delay and described it as functional illiteracy.

However, there is criticism of the proposed law by social commentators in the twin island republic who argue that the new measure underscores the merits and demerits of a jury system, and denies the right of a trial by jury and contend that more consultation was needed before it was tabled by the Attorney General, Faris Al Rawi. Opposition lawmakers are expected to vigorously oppose the bill, especially since it only requires a majority to become law.

Trinidad and Tobago is also seeking to move away from preliminary inquiry before a magistrate and replace it with “paper committal” – that is, statements from witnesses and other documentary evidence.

Belize passed legislation four years ago allowing a trial judge to hear murder and attempted murder cases. A few other countries, like South Africa, abolished jury trial since 1969, but it did not make news in the Caribbean until recently when Olympic gold medalist went on trial by a single judge for the murder of his girlfriend.

However, Barbados Chief Justice Marston Gibson is against trial by a judge and a former U.S. Supreme Court judge, Byron White, stated that “a right to jury trial was granted in order to provide ordinary persons with an inestimate safeguard against the corrupt or overzealous prosecutor and against the compliant biased or eccentric judge”.

St. Vincent and the Grenadines is a part of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court system which has nine circuits, the others being Antigua and Barbuda, Anguilla, British Virgin Islands Dominica, Grenada, Montserrat, St. Lucia, and St. Kitts and Nevis.

Trial in those jurisdictions is by judge and jury. In the dependent states, like Montserrat and Anguilla, the death penalty is not allowed.

Edward III in the 11th century by the law of the land, the jury system had been substituted by due process of law which in those times was a trial by 12 peers. The Magna Carta further secured trial by jury and this was handed down and practised in all Commonwealth countries.

Now there is a call for change and a few countries are slowly moving towards abolishing jury trials.

Advocates for a change pointed out that magistrates hear more than 90 per cent of the criminal cases without a jury and contend why judges, who are senior to magistrates, cannot be saddled with the responsibility to hear criminal cases.

The difference is magistrates only hear summary charges and judges and jury determine indictable offences — such as murder, attempted murder, and other serious crimes — but several years ago the law in Guyana was amended for magistrates to hear more serious cases such as causing death by dangerous driving and drug-related charges which carry lengthy jail sentences.

A few senior lawyers in the Caribbean are advocating a change from trial by jury in all serious criminal cases.