Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. (iWN file photo)

By *Jomo Sanga Thomas

(“Plain Talk” Dec. 11, 2020)

If you are poor and black, especially of a darker hue, chances are you are going to face a trying time, if and when you encounter the oppressive machinery of the state.

The beating of the accused is regular, their pleas are disbelieved, even in the face of compelling proof. As is frequently the case, the court does not bat an eye.

Or a judge may give an accused a tongue lashing for wanting to engage in the most basic bodily function as going to the bathroom to relieve himself. How dare the accused make such a request when the court is addressing the juror!

Depending on who is the victim, the police may refuse to arrest and charge an accused for shooting his girlfriend. Reason: complainant is disadvantaged; the accused is from the moneyed class.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

The Ministry of Legal Affairs is so thoroughly demeaning and disrespectful of the rule of law that its actions can only be described as gangster. Lest we forget, this ministry is led by PM Gonsalves who, before he climbed in the high chair of political office, had a stellar and successful career as a crusading lawyer championing the rights of those, to whom access to justice and the rule of law mean something.

Orders of the law courts are belittled and or condemned. Worse, they are routinely disrespected and disregarded. In SVG, we confront the sad reality where a High Court judge ordered the government to pay $500,000 in damages. The interest consequent to its failure to pay is now more than the initial award.

The government routinely refuses to pay damages or cost. The brazen nature of the government’s actions has reached the point where its lawyers don’t bother to file papers, meet deadlines or comply with court orders.

When the inevitable comes, and the government’s actions are struck down as arbitrary, irrational and illegal, the government does not bother to ask for a stay of the court’s decision.

Letters, emails and phone calls to the relevant authorities are neither acknowledged nor replied. High government officials sit back, huffing and puffing like mighty lords, daring the aggrieved party to do something that forces change or brings relief.

Compounding the problems for the less fortunate among us is the ways the judicial system operates. Justice delayed is justice denied. This maxim is brought to life every day in court.

In many instances, the magistrate courts stand as houses of horrors rather than places that dispense justice.

One magistrate had a young woman stand next to the defendant box because, according to him, she was too beautiful and “pretty skinned” to stand as an accused. Another magistrate convicted a young rural man, virtually flipping the burden of proof from the prosecution to the defendant. He had to go to the Court of Appeal to seek justice. Yet another dealt with a case with the accused standing outside the door of the courtroom.

All too often, cases in magistrate courts are decided on a whim rather than on legal principles. It is a regular occurrence for a magistrate to find someone guilty with the explanation that the police version of events is believed. The Court of Appeal has repeatedly ruled that rationale, without more, is an insufficient basis to ground a conviction. Many of these decisions stand because indigent defendants do not have the financial wherewithal to appeal a court’s decision.

The issue of bail presents a big problem. The right to bail is only meaningful if it is affordable. However, for the simplest of offences, bail is set in the thousands of dollars. The result is that many persons cram the prisons because of their inability to make bail.

An additional problem arises when the court orders a person adjudged guilty to pay a fine forthwith. The Court of Appeal frowns on forthwith orders. It demands that judicial officers conduct a means test before making such an order. Many poor defendants, convicted for minor offences, needlessly spend time in jail because the court refuses to grant them time within which to pay the fine.

Safeguards to justice are lacking. The remand time before trials is too long. Accused persons wait four or more years for their day in court. Because remand time is counted differently than jail time, the longer a prisoner is warehoused on remand, the more time he spends in prison.

There is also a lack of consistency in sentencing. Two convicted persons, on similar offences with similar facts, could end up with sentences that differ in years even where judges are required to follow guidelines.

Upon conviction, a prisoner may decide to appeal the decision of the court. Sadly, many end up serving their entire sentences without being able to pursue their appeal. Prisoners lucky to secure the transcript of the trial after years of incarceration suffer when the calculation is made for remand time.

The Registrar’s office is notoriously slow, one is tempted to say lethargic, when it comes to producing transcripts. But blame cannot properly be laid at the desk of the Registrar and her staff. The Ministry of Legal Affairs stubbornly refuses to hire more transcriptionists so that the record of appeal can be prepared. 

Despite the presumption of innocence, it is a hard thing to be a defendant. Depending on the crime, a long gloomy shadow follows the defendant. The public and jurors appear incapable of suspending judgments until all of the facts are known. This problem is fuelled by talk radio and social media. A criminal defendant is also prejudiced with the sometimes unconscious prejudices of judicial officers. We glean these biases from how facts are emphasised or relayed to the jury.

The poor, marginalised and disadvantaged sections of our society endure a very stressful existence. Unless creative solutions are found to address their confrontation with the coercive arm of the state, the quest for justice will remain an elusive dream, and the rule of law will continue to face challenges. 

*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].

13 replies on “Justice is on trial in SVG”

  1. Do we need to rewrite the Laws of st vincent and the Grenadines to reflect a more modern civilized approach to Law and Justice so they mean the same thing.
    Fairness being the operative word and the center of Governance forward.
    Clearly based on your commentary something needs to change.Less we border on Barberisim.

    1. Nathan 'Jolly' Green says:

      No Phil we just need the law to be administered as it should be, there are adequate rules and laws to do this. On of the most serious problems we have is political interference, and political influence.

  2. Across the Miles says:

    “The Ministry of Legal Affairs stubbornly refuses to hire more transcriptionists so that the record of appeal can be prepared.”

    I am a Court Reporter (sitting in court and taking everything down on a steno machine verbatim). Vincentian by birth. I am willing to assist with transcription of court records. All the Ministry need to do is say the word.

  3. Patrick Ferrari says:

    What trial? When?

    I am pressed to believe this, but I do. As deplorable and disgusting as it is, it is not going to change either, because there is neither the will nor the authority to make the change.

    They cannot even speak properly, are they going to rule properly? No.

    But thank you anyway Jomo and keep at it.

    The last time I said you were a very patient man, well, you are very brave too.

  4. Justice is becoming more and more difficult in many places. See the USA! It looks that country is going to get a Vice President that does not have a good record at all being a “decider” in the Justice System of California. In SVG the opposition was at least able to get the irregularities of an election looked at in court. In the USA, in spite of over 800,000 dead people voting and in some places, more votes than eligible voters going to the polls, AND MANY MANY MORE IRREGULARITIES, the courts REFUSE TO EVEN HEAR ANY OF THE CASES!
    At the beginning of the article above the author had to throw in skin color. Although there is some truth to this, it is very small. Being poor…BINGO! Maybe a lack of education contributes as well.
    I am as white as they come and the SVG police roughed me up, tripped me and shut me in a small wooden box for most of the day and I was not even being accused of ANY crime! They told me they have the right to detain me for at least 24 hours for even NO REASON AT ALL if they feel like it! They even called me a racist just because of my skin color!
    Yes! the SVG Police do need to get better training and learn to practice UNBIASED restraint, as I learned in the Police Academy at Washington State.
    Good policing and a functioning Justice System has nothing to do with how much money a government has.

    1. Your damnation of the recent federal elections in America tell me that you are suffering from Foxinitus: a mental disorder contracted by watching too much FoxNews which is the media arm of the Republican Party just as CNN is the medias arm of the Democrat Party.

      1. C. Ben, you are very educated but your heavy bias of things rules you to the point that you are unable to adapt and utilize truth in analysis and decision making. Instead you take a viewpoint and look for evidence to support it and any evidence to the contrary you either ignore it or just say it is inaccurate.
        Even though it is “politically correct” in SVG to hate Trump I am against vote fraud even if it would be directed at such a terrible “non-leader” as Joe Biden. There are bad things about Trump too but because he created an environment where job creation blossomed and (in spite of his beligerant unappealing public personality) is the first president in my lifetime that did not start any new wars, He also tore-up the fascist Trans-Atlantic Partnership: I have to say these are big plusses.
        Please provide any evidence (not just emotions from MSNBC, CBS, CNN and all the others) to prove he is racist against blacks, (i think he is “racist” against Muslims). Joe Biden on the other hand sponsored the Crime Bill. The most racist legislation against blacks in my lifetime!
        Most Vincentians in the USA live in DEMOCRAT-CONTROLLED New York. They REJECTED jobs creation (such as Amazon) but Trump was able to reduce taxes and create an environment for jobs in other PREDOMINANTLY BLACK jurisdictions. That is how he brought about the highest rate of African-American employment in US History. Vincentians in DEMOCRAT-CONTROLLED New York did not get this, thus they blame thier problems on Trump.
        Blacks have switched to Trump in droves! They are learning that Democrats want to keep them on welfare “poor relief” Trump has been getting them jobs.
        You have a truely great scholarly intellect but I wonder what you would be like if one day you are able to search-out accurate information based on facts and evidence instead of bias and “politically correct” emotions.

  5. Alwayn Leacock says:

    Dear Jomo
    Is it the politics that the problem or a lack of education of the jurists and officers of the law

  6. Wow … this article has moved me as an upcoming lawyer despite being outside SVG’s jurisprudence … what a shame but I believe the change in attitude has to be reflected from the PM first and then different cohorts of the legal fraternity need to be mobilised to “lift SVG higher”… yeah right…so sad

  7. This article seems too ticklish to even respond to.
    The poor will always be poor in the eyes of the court. Justice is, and would never be fair as long as it is political. Low society people are always being treated unfairly.
    WHEN IS THE SYSTEM IS GOING TO BE PURGED FROM ALL THE UNFAIR SCHEMES?

  8. Jomo and the rest of you just came to this realization ?? and that “white” fool saying thousand of dead voted in the USA lock him up and throw the key away.

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