A defence counsel has called for the appointment of another judge to handle criminal cases in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Jomo Thomas made the call at the closing of the assizes on Friday, while speaking on behalf of the defence bar, saying that persons are spending too long awaiting trial.
He noted that at the launch of the National Prosecutions Service on July 24, none of the speakers addressed the issue of the backlog in the criminal justice system.
To illustrate his point, Thomas said he had a client, Donrick Richards, who spent five years and six months on remand before pleading guilty to manslaughter last December.
Thomas said his client was sentenced to nine years in prison.
He said that if there had been another judge in St. Vincent, his client might have been sentenced very soon after his crime.
He said that while Richards might have still been sentenced to nine years in jail, in prison years, that translates to six calendar years.
Therefore, his client would have been scheduled for release this September, Thomas said.
The lawyer, however, noted that having spent five and a half years on remand, Richards has to serve an additional two years in prison, as time spent on remand is counted in calendar years, rather than prison years.
Thomas noted that some persons might ask why his client didn’t plead guilty sooner.
He, however, said that the more important question is why doesn’t the state provide more resources.
Thomas further noted that High Court judge, Justice Brian Cottle, who presided over the assizes, had spoken also, on Friday, about the conditions at the prisons being “far from ideal”.
The lawyer noted that 53 of the nation’s 446 prisoners were on remand, awaiting trial, and expressed concern about the way the system deals with remand prisoners.
Thomas quoted Justice Don Mitchell, who, in a published paper, noted that one of the ancient powers of a judge at the criminal assizes has always been to clear the prison of persons who are illegally held there.
Mitchell said that as a part of the assizes, the Superintendent of Prisons makes a prison return to the judge. Reporting on how many inmates are in custody.
Justice Mitchell said: “Normally, the judge just listens to the return and nods his head. It is now time to bring the process to something of its original purpose.”
Thomas commented that many persons are held on remand for long periods before being freed at a trial.
He said he can’t wait for the day when someone brings a false imprisonment case against the state when the case against them collapses.
In response to Thomas’ comment, Justice Brian Cottle said that the court is alive to the state of the list and has been speaking with the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) about this.
The judge said it is all good and well to make comments in a vacuum but he has from the DPP a list of all matters that are awaiting trial.
Justice Cottle said he is going through that list to remove matters that would not be on it.
He said that when that exercise is complete, he will report to Chief Justice Dame Janice Pereira and she would bear this in mind in deciding whether to appoint a second judge.
Justice Cottle said that in making that decision, consideration would also have to be given to space for accommodating a second court.
Thomas also told the court that too often, persons who have clearly been brutalised by the police are brought before the court and the magistrate does not bat an eye.
He said the safest place for anyone to be should be before a court of law.
“There must be a happy balance between fighting crime and protecting human rights,” he said.
The lawyer said he has heard magistrates shout at accused persons.