Caribbean judicial systems plagued with backlogged cases

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The judicial system throughout the region has been overwhelmed by a significant number of backlogged cases, which are waiting to be heard in the respective courts.

This was revealed during the UNDP’s forum on a needs assessment of the judicial system on Friday by Chief Justice of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court, Dame Janice Pereira.

She pointed out that this challenge is attributed to a number of issues but has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, now that the courts cannot facilitate normal hearings.

“Case backlogs within the systems has been a problem throughout the region and no doubt, a problem which of course impacts security and justice in our region. The problems may be multifaceted and they are encountered at different stages and in different ways but it is an area clearly that we have to address and address it in a significant way if we are to ensure that the public maintains trust and confidence in our justice system,” Dame Pereira said.

Chief Justice of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court, Dame Janice Pereira

Backlogging is commonly caused by slow investigation, lack of resources and a slow judicial process. In most cases, she said, there is a significant accumulation of criminal cases than others.

According to the Chief Justice, specialised courts for juvenile, sexual and drug offences or family matters can provide some relief to this trend. The needs assessment report would have highlighted a few countries within the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States which have been lacking court facilities, thus contributing to the problem.

“The country-level efforts at legislature reform must be continued as these too will assist with the management of case backlog. This is really fundamental and extremely important as a requirement, if we are to achieve the desired levels of success,” she added.

Presently, the countries are working to develop a strategy during the pandemic, of which the most successful will be adapted as a model in other nations.

“Most recently, we have been plagued and we still are with the effects of COVID-19 pandemic, which has exacerbated the case backlog problem. I have noted the strategies which are being employed in the different countries. Once these strategies are assessed, I’m sure that those that are successful will be of assistance to other countries,” it was contended.

Meanwhile, Ambassador of the United Nations to Antigua and Barbados, Aubrey Webson indicated that the needs assessment report can go beyond countries involved, in a bid to improving the justice system across the board.

According to him, islands remain most vulnerable due to their overdependence on tourism, which can foster corruption.

“Our islands are vulnerable. We are defined as some of the most vulnerable states within the United Nations family and vulnerabilities are a key characteristic of small states… It’s not only hurricanes and climate as our main vulnerable challenges…The over-dependence on tourism has proved to be a challenge in our justice system as well because that can lead towards corruption and criminalities, and can lead to the perception of a weak judicial system,” the Ambassador said.

At the end of last year, the backlog of criminal cases within the Supreme Court of Judicature in Guyana was reduced by 212, after they were disposed of by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Chambers throughout 2019.

In its annual report, the DPP said of the 212 cases, 178 received attention in High Courts across the country while 34 matters were nolle prosequi (not prosecuted) by the DPP.

There were 86 cases for murder, 84 sexual offences, two cases for the offence of manslaughter, five cases of attempt to commit murder and one case for accessory after the fact to murder. These cases resulted in 36 convictions, 56 guilty pleas, 32 formal verdicts of not guilty, 28 not guilty verdicts by jury, five hung juries, four aborted trials and 51 cases were nolle prosequi – 16 of which were done in court.

During 2019, the DPP also appeared in 30 matters in the Court of Appeal. Of these appeals, 12 were for sexual offences, three for the offence of manslaughter, eight for murder appeals, two for wounding with intent, another two for possession of narcotics for the purpose of trafficking and one each for felonious wounding, causing death by dangerous driving and uttering a forged document.

Within the year, the DPP’s office received 318 depositions, of which 174 indictments were proffered, 16 were returned to Magistrates’ Courts for reopening of cases, 13 matters were discontinued, two were nolle prosequi while 113 matters are receiving attention. The Chambers also gave legal advice in 3725 files received from the Guyana Police Force and other law enforcement agencies.