After years of extensive discussion and planning among stakeholders, the Supreme Court of Judicature (High Court) on Monday launched the Sexual Offences Court with hopes to take this same model to the other two counties – Berbice and Essequibo – in an effort to reduce the increased incidence of such cases.
In declaring the court open, acting Chancellor of the Judiciary, Justice Yonette Cummings-Edwards said that the specialist court was properly staffed and would see the rotation of criminal judges. The Chancellor also noted that the courtroom was properly equipped and would include a victim support unit.
“We have a panel of eminent judges…a special room to testify and a panel of support staff and an energetic Chief Justice… there will be no shortage of personnel to do the work. We wish to take this model to Berbice and Essequibo, where we have Supreme Courts,” she announced.
Justice Cummings-Edwards told a gathering of members of the local Bar Association, several prominent lawyers and other guests that training for personnel working for this specific court would also be provided. She said that two categories of persons from Trinidad were willing to provide the necessary training.
“They are willing to come on board to train – one is a sexual abuse specialist (children), a psychologist and as well as criminal law judge involved with sexual offence matters that helped to shape our guidelines and legislation,” the acting Chancellor explained, noting that this would be extended to the other courts.
While reminding people that the Sexual Offences Court will be victim-centred, she said this did not mean that the constitutional rights of the accused person would be disregarded. She stated that the presumption of innocence and equal protection would be remembered in these matters.
Justice Cummings-Edwards drew reference to statistics which have shown that sexual offences have been on the rise, both regionally and locally. “And we know that sexual offences do have a far-reaching impact on the victims whether they be adults or children, vulnerable groups…”
She continued, “When we look at statistics, more than 50 per cent of the cases for the Demerara Assizes over the last two sessions showed us that sexual offences comprised half of the list. So if half of the list comprised sexual offences, it meant that the other indictable offences…took second place…that is something we have to address.”
The acting Chancellor reminded that sexual offences affect victims emotionally, psychologically, and physically and those effects could be long term, short term, and it could also affect the development of the victims. And these victims require specialist treatment on the part of everyone concerned, be it the Police, investigators, medical practitioners, NGOs, prosecution, the court.
She emphasised that the entire process from investigation to the final adjudication and the entire criminal justice system as a whole must be careful how they approach this work. She believes if caution is not taken, secondary trauma or secondary victimisation could be inflicted on victims and witnesses of sexual offences and this is something that should be avoided.
Meanwhile, acting Chief Justice Roxane George noted that the Judiciary was cognisant of the concerns that have been expressed as regards the implementation of the Sexual Offences Act, but said that the judicial system has responded and has been working assiduously to make the opening a reality.
“This new court … represents the Chancellor and the judiciary to be responsive to the concerns that arise in our society about the conduct of trials in sexual offences’ cases, which we know must be dealt with sensitivity while respecting both the human rights of victims and survivors or accused,” she said.
The Sexual Offences Court was birthed out of the Sexual Offences Act 2010, which was spearheaded by former Human Services and Education Minister Priya Manickchand. The former Minister had led what was then called the ‘Stamp it Out’ Campaign in 2010 which saw widespread consultations around the country, as regards sexual offences and other major human rights issues facing Guyana.