Attorney General to tackle court backlog
Jun 26, 2007 - 11:07:02 AM
Attorney General Claire Hepburn in the Senate. (BIS
photo by Peter Ramsay)
Attorney General Claire Hepburn has vowed to tackle the backlog of criminal cases in the Supreme Court, presently standing at a daunting 500 cases, some more than 20 years old.
The new Free National Movement administration, she said, "has committed over the next five years to ensuring compliance with Article 20 (1) of the Constitution…”
That article states that “If any person is charged with a criminal offence, then, unless the charge is withdrawn the case shall be afforded a fair hearing within a reasonable time and by an independent and impartial court established by law.”
Mrs. Hepburn was speaking during debate in the Senate on the national $1.5 billion budget on Monday.
Mrs. Hepburn touched on the 'Swift Justice' initiative of the former PLP administration.
She said the underlying concerns which triggered the initiation of 'Swift Justice' "are certainly valid."
“We are all concerned about crime and social decay,” she said. “In the Free National Movement’s Manifesto 2007, crime is the first matter addressed and this budget commences the implementation of those programmes designed to reduce crime and better protect Bahamian families.
“We believe that the due administration of justice is too important and fundamental as a critical tenet of the principles of democracy to be caricatured by the attachment of a slogan thereto, which is no more than political cant.
“The term ‘swift justice’ is a pithy saying which sounds good but in reality does not mean much."
The principal objective of the administration of justice, she said, "must at all times be justice not swiftness.”
Mrs. Hepburn said there were a number of reasons why the adoption of the maxim “swiftly caught, swiftly tried and swiftly punished" was most unfortunate.”
Firstly, she said, the Constitution requires, not that persons charged be brought before the courts “swiftly” but rather that any person charged “shall be afforded a fair hearing with a reasonable period of time…”
"This means that each case must be expedited in an efficient, effective and, above all, impartial and fair manner," said Mrs. Hepburn.
What is reasonable will depend on the particular circumstances of each case, she said.
Some matters may be brought before the court seemingly 'swiftly', she said, as in matters where the facts are straightforward and the evidence and witnesses easily assembled.
Other matters may take much longer, sometimes many months before they are ready for trial, and yet would have been brought in a reasonable time.
“There is no magical formula that equates to 'swift',” she said.
Secondly, said Mrs. Hepburn, the rights of the accused should never be forgotten, she said.
"The maxim ‘swiftly caught, swiftly tried and swiftly punished’ could be construed as based on the assumption that every person apprehended by the police and charged before our courts is guilty of the offence charged.
“Such an assumption flies in the face of Article 20(2)(a) of the Constitution which guarantees that every person who is charged with a criminal offence, no matter how heinous the crime ‘shall be presumed to be innocent until he is proved or has pleaded guilty’," said Mrs. Hepburn.
"It is imperative that we guard against clichés which detract from this presumption of innocence.”
Thirdly, she said, it must be remembered that the office of the Attorney General and the courts are two distinct organs of the administration of justice system and have completely distinct functions.
“The court’s function is to dispense justice,” she said. “The function of the office of the Attorney General, insofar as criminal matters are concerned, is to prosecute such matters.”
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