ATTORNEY GENERAL Faris Al-Rawi put some hard numbers behind the challenges facing the justice system that will follow from the changes that are coming after the passage of the Administration of Justice (Indictable Proceedings) (Amendment) (No 2) Bill which went through Parliament last week.
The magistracy is currently dealing with 44,183 outstanding cases of which 32,973 are indictable matters. Three of those cases have languished in the magistrates’ court for more than 14 years and 294 cases have been in legal limbo for more than five years.
The Attorney General is correct to note that the process “makes a mockery of justice for the average citizen.” The new amendments to the bill are an effort to abolish preliminary enquiries and to accelerate judicial process and procedure. Preliminary enquiries have also proven to be an expensive process, both for the State prison system, which becomes home to murder accused for years, as well as those who cannot meet their bail costs.
What Al-Rawi described as the “preliminary enquiry dance” also brings costly legal fees as the process drags on. Preliminary enquiries are part of establishing due process for an accused individual in the justice system. Summary offences are heard and decided in the magistrates’ court. Indictable offences require that a prima facie case be made out against the accused. If that case is clear-cut in the view of the magistrate, the case is forwarded to the High Court to be heard by a judge and jury.
The new system, which has been guided by equivalent legislation adopted in Jamaica, Grenada, St Lucia and Guyana, will take the form of sufficiency hearings heard by Masters of the Court for all indictable offences. The case will be first heard by a magistrate who will either move to a summary trial or order that the accused appear before a master.
As with all adjustments to the legal process, even those which have been as admirably and vigorously considered by the judicial system and Parliament as this one has been, there remain questions that a change in the law cannot answer decisively.
There are currently six Masters of the Court who may now find themselves facing an avalanche of cases which have bedevilled the magistracy. How will this new process work to advantage in that reality? Further, there are 459 matters pending the attention of the High Court in Port-of-Spain alone, and 352 that are pending for more than 15 years.
Is the High Court ready for the dramatic increase in cases that’s likely to result from the new system?