The government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines is proposing to change how the law courts handle certain criminal matters.
Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves spoke about the proposed changes during a press conference during which he said his administration has a clear strategy on crime.
Gonsalves, who is minister of national security and legal affairs, told the media on Thursday that his government wants to extend the time for which the police can hold a suspect without charge, among other changes to the law.
“I’ve had and had discussions with individuals from the regional judiciary, had with the Director of Public Prosecution, with the police, the previous commissioner and now this commissioner on a number of other reforms. We have done some important reforms already in relation to evidence, procedure. But we need to do some more,” the prime minister said.
“We probably will have to go to Parliament to extend the time for which you can hold somebody. Now it’s 48 hours — maybe a little longer,” said Gonsalves, a lawyer who practised law in the criminal court for many years before becoming prime minister in March 2001.
“We have done something in relation to preliminary inquiries. But defence counsel will still insist on the preliminary inquiry rather than having what you may call a paper committal with the statements being made and the defence would say well, okay, we’ll go straight to trial.”
A preliminary inquiry is a legal process through which a magistrate determines if the prosecution has enough evidence for a jury to consider in determining whether someone is guilty or not guilty of a charge.
Preliminary inquiries are conducted in two forms, a paper committal, in which the magistrate, prosecutor and lawyer for the defendant read through the evidence in the presence of the defendant, or witnesses come to court and give evidence and are cross examined.
If witnesses come to court to testify and the persons is committed to stand trial, it means that the witnesses would have to testify twice — at the magistrate’s court and also before the High Court.
Gonsalves said that a lot of time lawyers reject paper committals not because of the merits of the case.
“… sometimes is a monetary thing. The lawyers want to make sure that — they don’t like me to say this but I know how the system works — to collect their piece of change for the PI, for the preliminary inquiry, and so on and so forth.
“And maybe we need to change that and take away the right from the defence and let the presiding magistrate, on the basis of the documents which are before [him or her] say, listen, ‘I’ve read these documents and I’m sending this forward on the basis of a — so that they shorten the time nuh and go to the trial at the High Court … sooner, rather than have this backlog,” Gonsalves said.
He said this means that the country would have to have more judges because cases would move through the system faster.
“But that’s fine,” he said.
Gonsalves said a case is being made to abolish jury trials for murder and some other offences.
“Have by judge alone. All of these matters, I’m telling you that as minister of national security, I’m giving serious reflection upon for a public conversation because it would mean that we will be changing in some fundamental ways some matters, the way some criminal matters have been dealt with but the circumstances may well justify and continuing discussions on these matters,” Gonsalves said.
He said he was anticipating some pushback from human rights activists to the proposed changes to the law.
“I know by raising these, human rights persons are going to jump at me but the point about it is this I’m not saying that anything must be taken away from procedural fairness. All the constitutional requisites would be there; the presumption of innocence will still be there. All of these things would be there. It’s just that some of the procedures you may need to alter them because it’s a different world, which is evolving and we have to respond accordingly. So, I just wanted to put those out for public reflections.”
Gonsalves said there would definitely be an increase in penalties for the firearm “pretty soon.
“And we’re going to give an opportunity through the amnesty which I announced on Independence Day,” the prime minister said and urged people with illegal firearms to surrender them, adding that after the amnesty there would be higher penalties.
“And when that happens, I don’t want a mother or father or a girlfriend to be calling me and complaining and say well, is the first time he had it, a first offence. And before he mighta get 18 months or three years and now he getting five years or six years,” Gonsalves said.
“But the guns are killing people. And I am sure that right-thinking persons will appreciate the kind of discussion which I’m initiating here through this press briefing.”