EDITORIAL: CCJ ruling, timely reminder
A JUDGEMENT of the Caribbean Court of Justice delivered on August 16 touches on a matter which has arisen in the local justice system on more than one occasion in the recent past.
It is the question of the length of time it takes before an accused person in Barbados is brought to trial before a jury of his peers.
Only a month ago it was reported that a murder accused had filed an action alleging that he has been on remand in prison for four years and that his constitutional rights were thereby breached. Earlier this year, similar reports surfaced in other cases.
It is important to note that we are dealing only with the comments of the court on the matter of delay, given the constitutional right of all accused to a trial within “a reasonable time”. The court’s statements are of general public interest and here is what was said:
“The public have a profound interest in criminal trials being heard within a reasonable time. Delay creates and increases the backlog of cases clogging and tarnishing the image of the criminal justice system. Further, the more time it takes to bring a case to trial the more difficult it may be to convict a guilty person. For a variety of reasons witnesses may become unavailable or their memories may fade, sometimes seriously weakening the case of the prosecution which carries the burden of proof.
“Defendants released on bail for lengthy periods have an opportunity to commit other crimes if they are so disposed. The longer an accused is free awaiting trial, the more tempting becomes the opportunity to skip bail and avoid being tried. On the other hand, keeping remanded persons in custody for excessive periods
increases prison populations and aggravates the evils associated with overcrowded jails. Moreover, there is a financial cost to the public in maintaining a person on remand.
“Even more telling than the societal interests at stake are the consequences to an accused of a breach of the reasonable time guarantee. This is evident in the case of a defendant who is not guilty. That person is deprived of an early opportunity to have his name cleared and is confronted with the stigma, loss of privacy, anxiety and stress that accompany exposure to criminal proceedings.
“But a defendant facing conviction and punishment may also suffer, albeit to a lesser extent, as he is obliged to undergo the additional trauma of protracted delay with all the implications it may have for his health and family life. By deliberately elevating to the status of a constitutional imperative the right to a trial within a reasonable time, a right which already existed at common law, the framers of the Constitution ascribed a significance to this right that too often is under appreciated, if not misunderstood.”
The court remarked that inordinate delays were not unique to Barbados, and that such delays are prevalent in other Caribbean states as well; though it was noted that St Lucia had made assiduous and seemingly successful efforts to deal with the problem, and apparently without incurring too much expenditure.
We have no doubt that there are legitimate constraints which contribute to “unreasonable” delays in Caribbean countries, and that money which is always in short supply in small developing countries may be required to remove some of the bottlenecks in the system.
We hope, however, that careful analysis by all relevant parties in Barbados will return us quickly to the days of timelier trials without the necessity of treasury-breaking expenditure.