The St. Lucia-based Judicial & Legal Service Commission (JLSC) says it will “investigate further” concerns raised by the St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) Bar Association about the appointment of former Commissioner of Police Colin John as senior magistrate.
John, 55, who obtained early retirement as police chief in August, was appointed senior magistrate effective Dec. 1. He is also a former assistant director of public prosecution.
On Nov. 30, one day before John was sworn in, the SVG Bar Association wrote to the JLSC placing on the record its concerns about the appointment.
In a response on Dec. 6, Jodi-Ann Masters-Singh, Secretary to the JSLC, writing on behalf of Chief Justice and chair of the commission, Dame Janice M. Pereira, said the commission noted the concerns “and intends to investigate the matter further for a suitable resolution.
“To that end, the Commission will be liaising with the Public Service Commission in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, from which the Commission received the recommendation for Mr. Colin John’s appointment to the post of Senior Magistrate,” Masters-Singh wrote.
She said the commission appreciates “the sensitive nature of the Bar Association’s concerns and, accordingly, would require time to conduct its own investigations.
“Once those investigations are complete, the Bar Association will receive a more detailed response from the Commission as timeously as possible,” the letter said.
In her Nov. 30 letter, Shirlan M. Barnwell, president of the SVG Bar Association, said John’s then impending appointment was “of deep and urgent concern to the Bar”.
She said the Bar Association was only reliably informed one day before her letter of John’s swearing-in the following day.
Among the concerns that the Bar Association raised was that John is the immediate past commissioner of police who served in that position from Dec. 31, 2018 to Aug. 31, 2023.
“We estimate that over 95% of criminal matters brought in the Magistrate’s court involve the Commissioner of Police as complainant. Given the delays in the system, most of the matters brought over the last four years will still be pending,” Barnwell wrote. She said the public, like many members of the Bar, carry the perception that the magistrate’s court is a police court.
“This impending appointment will further cement that perception,” Barnwell said in the letter, which stated that two out of the four sitting magistrates are former senior police officers, both of whom are male.
“Mr. John’s impending appointment means that three out of the four sitting magistrates will be male, and former senior police officers.”
Barnwell noted that magistrates Bertie Pompey is a retired deputy commissioner of police and John Ballah, who was appointed to the magistracy in June 2023, is a former assistant superintendent of police.
“As you may be aware, St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) is currently experiencing an unprecedented surge in crime. Currently there are 50 recorded homicides and the public perception of police and policing is at an all-time low,” Barnwell wrote.
“The add-on effect of this impending appointment is the lack of diversity in a 21st century judicial system. The magistracy is heavily male-dominated, and now police-dominated.”
The letter said that a “new and deeply concerning precedent” was being set in that the holder of the office of commissioner of police can seamlessly move from active duty as police chief to a judicial officer.
“In that capacity, he will likely be presiding over criminal matters filed in his name over the last four years and hearing evidence from his colleagues and subordinates, which can lead to criminal convictions,” Barnwell wrote.
The letter continued:
“Dame Janice, we take very seriously our duty to protect, preserve and promote the legitimacy and credibility of our justice system. We strongly believe that the impending appointment flies in the face of the well-entrenched dictum that ‘justice must not only be done, but must also be seen to be done.’”
Barnwell said the Bar Association believes that John’s appointment as senior magistrate would “further erode the public trust and confidence in the judiciary, and likely to bring the justice system into further disrepute.
“We must, therefore, guard against the appearance of bias and ensure that the fundamental principles of impartiality and independence of the judiciary prevail at all times. We trust, Dame Janice, that you understand our concerns and that the JLSC will accept and place on record the concerns of the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Bar Association on this issue,” Barnwell said in her letter.