THE VALLEY, Anguilla (CMC) – Lawyers in the sub-regional Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) Friday joined their counterparts in the Commonwealth Caribbean in criticising statements made by at least two regional prime ministers during the recently concluded regional symposium on violence as a public health issue in Trinidad and Tobago.
In a statement, the OECS Bar said it “strongly” condemns the statements made by Barbados Prime Minister Mia Motley and her St. Vincent and the Grenadines counterpart, Ralph Gonsalves, “which clearly constitute an attack on the independence of the judiciary and regrettably reflects a disconnect from the realities of criminal behaviour in society and the role of the Judiciary”.
Gonsalves, addressing the two-day regional symposium which was attended by several CARICOM leaders, criticised members of the judiciary who granted bail to murder accused, asking whether they lived on Mars.
“I am not calling for any totalitarian measure. I am not calling for that. But there is in aspects of our judiciary a creeping lack of awareness as to some of the problems which we face.
“How can you give somebody who is charged for murder bail? Let’s be serious. How can you do that,” Gonsalves asked, adding “where those judges live? On Mars?”
Gonsalves also noted that “too many of our judges and our magistrates are too soft. Sometimes you get the impression that some magistrates, depending on who is the lawyer, their people seem to get a better treatment … everybody talks about this, but they talking about it behind closed doors,” said Gonsalves, who is also a lawyer.
Mottley, also an attorney, told the regional symposium that many years ago “people did not get bail for murder.
“Now when I look at the stats, not just out of the Bahamas, Barbados and all through the region, the people who are causing the greatest problems are charged with two, three, four murders. Something is fundamentally wrong.
“So, I ask myself two basic questions. How are we going to deconstruct and reconstruct to meet the reality of this jurisprudential development that is undermining the rule of law in our countries and we are going to have to find ways of cooperating from the level of the police to the level of the courts, but in particular, forensics.
“If we can get people to court within nine to 12 months, you have a good chance of a person not being given bail. Beyond 12 months, any number can start to play,” Mottley said.
In its statement, the OECS Bar said that instead of focusing on the real issues impacting crime such as the lack of investment in youth, the family, education, the judicial system, the police, and the crown prosecution service, some leaders preferred playing the blame game “blaming everybody else but the politicians currently in office.
“The OECS Bar is truly disappointed at the missed opportunity at the symposium, in such an esteemed setting, in finding new and creative ways to tackle the scourge of crime, but instead leaving the headlines blazing and opportunistically focused on judges and magistrates who speak from their judgments and are in no position to defend themselves publicly against such attacks.
“It is especially disturbing that the offending statements came from two very admired former legal practitioners, one of whom was a formidable defence lawyer,” the OECS Bar said, adding that “the attacks on judicial officers were wholly unfair, unfounded, uncalled for and misplaced.
“Our Bar Associations in the region have been consistently calling, over the years, for an overdue injection of resources to boost our legal system long suffering from poor accommodation, woefully inadequate and ill-equipped supporting registries, a serious shortage of judges to meet the ever-growing demand of cases within the system, and a lack of basic equipment and tools for transcription and other services ancillary to the work of judicial officers.”
The association said that it is well known that judicial officers are largely overworked and operate under less than desirable conditions.
It said examples abound in the Eastern Caribbean of governments not paying their required financial contributions to the court, causing serious embarrassment to the judiciary.
“Growing backlogs of cases in the High Court and Court of Appeal, seriously impacting the administration of justice, are not creations of the judiciary but stem largely from an under-resourced judicial system.”
The OECS Bar said that while it wanted to “make it clear that judicial officers are not above criticism,” Bar Associations have a duty to rise in the defence of judicial officers against unfair and unwarranted criticism, especially by agents of other arms of the State seeking to absolve themselves of responsibility and heaping blame on them in circumstances where they cannot defend themselves.
“The OECS Bar wishes to remind our CARICOM leaders that our Constitutions mandate that every person charged with a criminal offence is entitled to the presumption of innocence and to a fair trial within a reasonable time.
“The presumption of innocence applies no less to persons charged with murder. In several jurisdictions across the region, bail has long been granted in murder matters,” it said, adding “in any event, judges act judicially, not arbitrarily.
“Each bail application will be considered on its own merit and a decision taken after considering well established judicial guidelines. Bail is not automatic. Holding persons on remand for murder for long extended periods, in some countries for more than 10 and 15 years, without the possibility of bail, clearly infringes the guaranteed fundamental right to a fair trial.”
In the statement, the OECS Bar said that judges are bound by the decision of higher courts.
“If the Privy Council has therefore declared that withholding bail for murder is unconstitutional, then our judges must follow and apply the law accordingly. Moreover, under our system of separation of powers, the executive, legislative and judicial arms are co-equal and constitutionally mandated to perform specific roles.”.
The OECS Bar said it will continue to defend the independence of the judiciary, uphold the rule of law and promote a more efficient and effective administration of justice.
“We shall also continue to educate and empower the public on issues touching and concerning the law and on burning issues impacting the administration of justice,” it added,
Meanwhile, the Organization of Commonwealth Caribbean Bar Association (OCCBA) has also criticised the positions taken by the CARICOM leaders.
“OCCBA joins our colleagues and members of the legal profession throughout the Commonwealth Caribbean in the condemnation of these reckless and dangerous comments.
“We feel compelled to remind the Prime Ministers that responsible leadership must not sacrifice the Rule of Law, constitutional principles, the presumption of innocence as well as the respect for regional justice systems and our judiciary on the altar of cheap sound bites and dangerous political rhetoric designed to score political points,” OCCBA added.
It said responsible leadership must recognise that the Commonwealth Caribbean legal systems and Constitutions all are designed to protect and preserve basic human rights and freedoms.
“We remind citizens of the Commonwealth Caribbean that the Judiciary is a separate and independent branch of government that should not be unduly interfered with by the political directorate.
“The usual intellect, eloquence and creative rhetoric of the Prime Ministers, that we are accustomed to, is not lost on any of us. So, the attributed comments made by them in a public roundtable regional leadership conference attended by Caricom leaders with many media outlets in tow, gives us moment for pause and concern.
“We urge careful introspection and hopeful immediate clarifications and retractions by the Prime Ministers as regards their unfortunate utterances,” it added.
If you live outside the Caribbean it possible you could come across an article saying that there’s justice and fair play in our judicial system. This couldn’t be further from the truth .In Vincy the poor is almost guaranteed to be guilty and the affluent and well politically connected are often times deemed innocent or get a slap on the wrist. Most of the leaders in the Caribbean have judges eating out of their hands so judges are for the most part political tools of these governments. Autonomous on paper but not in reality.
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