High Court judge Justice Frank Seepersad has called for a change in the way criminal prosecutions are handled in the magistrates’ court through a review of the role of police prosecutors. It’s a call that should be seriously considered. It’s clear something’s amiss in the magistrates' court.
According to Seepersad, there have been 33 malicious prosecution cases in his court alone for this year, evidence that the prosecutorial system needs urgent review. “Far too many matters are dismissed, and no one is held accountable,” he said. For the judge, the role of police prosecutors is a key part of the malaise.
“Given the fact that the majority of criminal offences are summarily determined before magistrates, it is simply untenable to have police prosecutors, most of whom lack legal qualifications, charged with the mandate of prosecuting the majority of magisterial matters,” Seepersad said in ruling on costs in relation to a withdrawn malicious prosecution lawsuit.
Seepersad’s comments shed light on an aspect of the criminal justice system that is seldom appreciated. It’s not uncommon for prosecutions to be handled in the magistrates’ courts by police officers assigned to various courtrooms. This system has several advantages and disadvantages.
In the context of shortages at the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, the use of police prosecutors is a way to make up for manpower gaps. Additionally, police prosecutors may be in a better position to liaise with police officers to assure their attendance in court.
For sure, the lack of legal training on the part of police prosecutors is a major disadvantage. How can the State effectively marshal a case against an accused without a basic understanding of the elements of the offence as well as evidentiary procedure? That said, some police prosecutors do have legal training. In fact, the number of police officers with law degrees is on the rise.
Maintaining the system of police prosecutors could, in the long run, have a positive impact on the Police Service. If such prosecutors are required to be legally trained, this could entrench a culture of legal knowledge within the Service. Such a culture can only be to the benefit of all involved, allowing officers to have a more thorough understanding of their role and assisting detectives in making out the elements of an offence to ensure successful convictions in court.
Meanwhile, it’s worth observing that other facts are at play at the magistrates’ court. A long backlog of cases, high absenteeism on the part of witnesses, limited physical resources—these also form a part of the picture. But as things stand, without a major shake-up, the system will continue to suffer from the defects identified by Seepersad. Perhaps the time has come for the State to make legal training compulsory for all police prosecutors.