Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves says he is pleased to see that the magistracy is taking steps to address the backlog of cases awaiting disposal.
“And I hope that that programme works out as they intend. At least they’re addressing it,” he said on radio recently.
Earlier this month, Senior Magistrate Rickie Burnett said that he will take steps to eliminate the backlog of cases at the Kingstown Magistrate’s Court.
This includes soon having only five matters listed, daily, for hearing and trying to ensure that everything is in place to ensure that the hearings take place, as scheduled.
In December, the senior magistrate said that the “backlog” at his court might not be what it seems, in light of the fact that the court was closed for most of 2019 and part of 2018.
The data showed that at the end of October 2020, there were 520 matters pending before the court
Burnett, however, said that 544 matters entered the system from January to October 2020, with 323 cases entering between June and October.
This is in addition to the matters that were pending before those periods.
“So, even though the court was closed for most of 2019 and part of 2018, we are not doing as bad as the figures may show without analysing them properly,” Burnett said.
In his recent comments, Gonsalves said that he wants to see the High Court addressing the backlog of criminal cases.
“… because some of the data that I’ve seen, I’m not happy about it,” said Gonsalves, who is also minister of justice.
He said that a lady had written him a letter, which he sent on to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP).
“A person was charged for murder in 2018. The preliminary inquiry was completed in June 2019. So far, so good. But they have not had a trial yet. That’s not acceptable,” the prime minister said, adding that he knows there is “enough blame to go around”.
Gonsalves, who is also a lawyer, said he had seen a statement from the bench by one magistrate saying that lawyers contribute to the backlog by asking for adjournments.
“…and I happen to know that and when I said so in the Parliament, a junior lawyer tried to take me on it. But I know, for a fact that lawyers ask for adjournments for all kinds of reasons — connected to their workload, connected to the fact that they might get a down payment and ain’t get any more money. And, and in the legal profession, money is money is the oxygen of the profession. Without money, lawyers tell you they can’t breathe.”
The prime minister said he was not saying that lawyers must not get their money.
“But the point is this: There is a limit to which you can have adjournment after adjournment. But it’s just not right for persons to be in custody for inordinate lengths of time awaiting trial. Simply not right.”
He said there cases where persons wait two or three years for trial and then the DPP discontinue the case or accepts a guilty plea on a lesser charge, say, manslaughter rather than murder.
“Why those things can’t be done much earlier? And the case where you are inside [prison] two, three years or more and then you’re acquitted, or the case doesn’t go on, the case is discontinued or whatever the reason, you’d have spent two, three years of your life in jail.
“It’s not fair; absolutely not fair. And I’m going to talk about this thing.”
Gonsalves noted that his government added a second criminal court in February 2020 in an attempt to reduce the backlog.
“Okay, I know COVID, slow down jury trial. But we have to make sure that we get these trials going, we have to do things in a practical manner,” he said.
The prime minister said that the DPP has written “a long document, which has been circulated to everybody as to how certain things can be improved.”
Gonsalves further said he was surprised to learn earlier this year that there are some persons who are appealing their criminal convictions could not get a transcript from the High Court because they could not afford the cost.
“As soon as it was drawn to my attention, I said, this state will pay for those transcripts. And I gave instructions to hire individuals who can do the transcription outside of the government service.
“Look, I take these things very seriously. And I’m talking about it and if I don’t provide the facilities, criticise me and I will accept the criticism in good faith as they are made, and set about to do correctives.
“But this matter, it has been brought to the attention of the chief justice. And I will draw it again to the attention of the chief justice, and I will speak about it publicly.”
The prime minister said he was not interfering in the independence of the judiciary or telling the judiciary how to do its work.
“That’s not my business. But it is my business and every citizen’s business if an accused person does not get a fair trial within a reasonable time and especially so if the person is incarcerated.”
He said that a woman had called him from overseas, saying her son was in prison because he had no relatives in St. Vincent and the Grenadines to bail him.
“Well, surely after a little while that you can’t get somebody to sign as surety, do something else. Let him surrender his passport, his ID card to the court and let him report every day, if need be, to a police station in his district.
“You could impose bail conditions. You can put a curfew on him. We just have to do things in an innovative [manner]. It’s not for me to tell people to do their work. And I’m not doing that. I can’t do that. But it’s just not fair. It’s not right,” Gonsalves said.