On holding court outside the box . . .
A disturbing state of affairs that has reportedly been a problem for decades recently came to the fore in the magistrates’ courts once again.
In adjourning a case of sexual assault, Magistrate Douglas Frederick warned the prosecuting sergeant there was the likelihood the case could be dismissed for lack of prosecution. He stated, inter alia, that such a situation would not be in the best interest of the victim, but pointed to the years that the matter had been before the court without being started. He noted the constant attendance of witnesses, inclusive of accused and victim. The dilemma, it was revealed, rested in the fact that those responsible in the Royal Barbados Police Force had not produced the requisite case file for the matter to be started.
At yesterday’s sitting of the District “A” Magistrates’ Court, Acting Magistrate Alliston Seale, himself a former policeman and perhaps well aware of the perennial problem, went a step further. He had before him three accused charged with the serious offence of robbery, as well as a charge of assault occasioning actual bodily harm.
The offences had been committed in 2010 and, yet again, several adjournments later, the prosecution was in no position to start proceedings. Magistrate Seale duly dismissed all charges and the three accused walked from the court into the courtyard where they waved triumphantly to family and friends as free men.
On previous occasions, specific magistrates have sought answers as to why some case files take so long to reach their courts. As has been seen from the dismissal of a number of cases without prosecution, these files are often absent from the courts in excess of five years, and in other situations, are never produced. Some in the hierarchy of the Royal Barbados Police Force, from time to time, have been ordered to the courts to explain the unfortunate lapses, but the problem still persists.
Of course, it must be stressed, that the non-production of case files in our law courts is not the rule, but is too much of an exception.
Accused persons who have their matters dismissed for lack of prosecution –– whether innocent or guilty –– have good reason to be elated at their good fortune. But what about the victims of the crimes? What does the state tell a rape victim who does not get her day in court because of the negligence of one of its workers?
How will Ramon Nurse be appeased after those accused of robbing him walked free from the Magistrates’ Court yesterday without his matter being heard? What will the Government say to Jared Leacock after those accused of causing him bodily harm left the precincts of the court yesterday without having to answer a solitary question about his hurt?
Perhaps, it is time that victims of crime whose cases have been dismissed for lack of prosecution, through no fault of theirs, but due to the negligence of the state –– through its police officers –– seek legal opinion on their rights to possible monetary compensation. But those might just be more court cases and files that add to the stockpile in the system.
Citizens seek justice through the law courts. It is the civilized way of accessing legal redress and a counter to availing oneself of vigilante justice. The victims of crimes often endure great trauma and seek closure through our courts. When that rape victim returns before Magistrate Frederick and there is again no case file –– if the matter be dismissed –– at whose feet do we place the blame if there are unsavoury repercussions?
But there is yet another victim.
Those hardworking police officers who commit to making our country safe by patrolling and placing criminal elements before the courts for prosecution, must feel a sense of futility when criminals are returned to the streets because of the negligence of their fellow officers. The task of protecting society from these elements then becomes akin to a cat chasing its own tail.
Maybe, the time has come for the senior administration of the force to put in place a strategy where simple matters are brought before the court in a manner that does not of necessity require burdensome presentation of files. There seems no logical reason why simple assaults, woundings, petty theft, and a entire range of other offences, should be dismissed because of the non-production of files, when there could be measures implemented negating the need for files.
There have been suggestions of the introduction of courts manned by trained Justices of the Peace, or persons who are not necessarily judges or magistrates, but sufficiently trained in law, to deal with simple, non-indictable matters. Perhaps our legal brains should seek to find means by which evidence can be given in the courts in minor matters without the traditional level of paperwork. In this age of technology this is not a far-fetched challenge.
Chief Justice Sir Marston Gibson speaks most eloquently on speeding up the court process, but little has eventuated from this eloquence. He has his hands burdened with other sluggish administrative matters that do not include the timely production of case files to the law courts, and needs all the help he can get from the Royal Barbados Police Force. Successive Commissioners of Police have sought to alleviate the problem of case file management, but the headache remains.
The problem is likely to remain if thought remains fixed inside the box.