By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk” Jan. 14, 2022)
There is a lot of ignorance about the law in SVG. The Bar Association offers no help in explaining the law to the people. It does not even bother to meet. The Human Rights Association, which did so much good work when lawyer Victor Cuffy was alive, literally died with his passing. The people are left to think it out on their own. Small wonder the level of misunderstanding of law is so high.
During her address to mark the opening of the new law year, Chief Justice Janice Pereira lamented the fact that many countries in the Eastern Caribbean keep their laws as a closely guarded secret. She called on governments to make their laws available to the public. She claimed that the non-availability of the laws online makes it difficult for even the court to do its work. This problem takes on new importance in light of the Coronavirus Pandemic. The Court of Appeal, which travels from the BVI in the north to Grenada in the south, cannot move around as usual. Therefore, it relies on telecommunications technology to hear cases.
Addressing the issue of access to justice, Justice Pereira criticised state authorities across the region for their failure to produce transcripts of court proceedings. She noted that many accused persons sometimes spend the entire sentence, even where they appealed their conviction. She explained that this is an unsustainable state of affairs which must be speedily corrected. Justice delayed is justice denied.
In St. Vincent, it is normal for convicted appellants to wait upwards of five years to receive transcripts. Increasingly, prisoners are forced to find thousands of dollars to pay a private transcriptionist abroad so as to gain access to their trial records. The court cannot hear an appeal if it does not know the evidence from which the convicted person is appealing.
In St. Vincent, a set of laws is priced at over EC$10,000, way above the reach of many practising attorneys, let alone the ordinary citizen. Therein lies the basis for the many uninformed comments uttered by concerned citizens. PR Campbell, for two decades, through his “The Law and You” programme, offered timely and necessary advice. Now that he has passed on, someone has to fill the void.
A few weeks ago, a grown man committed a grossly indecent and obscene sexual act on his 4-year-old daughter. Many Vincentians were incensed. Apart from wondering what depraved mind will sexually exploit his daughter, many took the magistrate to task for sentencing the accused man to four years imprisonment. The sentence came after a guilty plea.
Many thought the sentence was too lenient. Some wanted blood. However, the magistrate did her job. For such crimes, the maximum penalty is five years. In neighbouring Grenada, such an act would have attracted a sentence of no less than 10 years.
The entire case and the reaction brought the need for legal reform into focus. The last revision of our laws was in 2009. And even then, the 2009 edition was more a compilation than an authentic and meaningful revision of our laws.
Many of our laws are archaic. They go back more than a century. Most of them were inherited from colonial times, and there has been no real and concerted effort to renew or revise them. Our property law is based on the English property law of 1886. The English have modernised their property law. As a veteran attorney remarked recently, in doing a deed of conveyance, attorneys must research the root of title for as far back as 60 years. In the UK, they go back only 15. His view was that it’s a waste of time to research so far back for the root. Reason: the possessory title law allows the rightful title owner of a property to be ousted. A squatter need only be in open and continuous occupation of the property for 12 years.
Or take the case of consent. A young girl can consent to sexual intercourse at 15 but cannot marry before 16 without the permission of her parents or guardian. The same girl cannot be employed or obtain a driver’s license before 16. And she cannot legally drink or vote before her 18th birthday.
The law cries out for standardisation. One can get a maximum of 5 years for engaging in a gross sexual act with an infant. But if someone is successfully prosecuted for possession or distribution of a video of the act, the penalty is far greater.
There has been some reform in areas of the law. However, the post-independence effort leaves much to be desired. The creation of the Family Court was expected to assist in this regard. Sadly, Family Court is a never-ending movie of drama and horrors. The president is uniquely qualified for the job. She possesses the patience of Job and a true paternal touch that helps to mediate and judge difficult situations. But she needs more tools.
Five years ago, a much-needed revision in the law dealt with domestic disputes. These problems often lead to the neglect and exploitation of children and women. Violence is very prevalent. All too often, the swift action by police depends on who makes the complaint. The victim or complainant’s racial, economic or social class still counts. A man of worth and status can gun-butt his handyman and stroll out of court. The son of a prominent business family can shoot his baby mother in the leg and escape prosecution. Expatriates can videotape the Vincentian infants on beaches across this country and avoid arrest or investigation by police.
We can do much more to bring about a greater understanding and functioning of the law. The government must promptly offer public access to all of our laws. The Lawyers’ and human rights associations must do more to educate and enlighten citizens. Such an education will contribute to a far more informed citizenry.
*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].