Trial delays concern top justice

The Grand Court is starting 2007 with the largest ever backlog of criminal cases with 68 being carried over from last year.

Chief Justice Anthony Smellie expressed his concern Wednesday at the ceremonial opening of the grand court. He said many achievements have been made in the judicial system, but staff must continue to strive for success.

Justice delayed is justice denied means courts must always be on the alert for problems that can create backlogs, he said.

Mr. Smellie said 101 new indictments were filed in 2006. In the same year, 79 indictments were disposed of, including 41 from 2005, resulting in 68 being carried over into 2007.

He said many cases are adjourned at short notice or discontinued at short notice because of the absence of witnesses. Another reason is the absence or lateness of scientific evidence or other expert evidence.

Mr. Smellie said he would invite the acting attorney general and commissioner of police, their designates and defence attorneys to meet with judges to ensure criminal cases are disposed of in a timely manner.

Along with criminal matters, the Grand Court had 438 new cases filed in 2006 along with 222 diverse cases.

In Summary Court, the number of charges filed rose from 5,202 in 2005 to 8,061 in 2006. In both years the bulk involved mainly ticketing or other traffic offences. There were 6,824 such charges in 2006, with 1,237 more serious charges.

Disposal of cases in the Summary Court is not as easy to measure as in the Grand Court.

For example, defendants charged with domestic violence offences or driving under the influence of alcohol are routinely required to undergo prescribed treatment or counselling. The case remains before the court until courses are completed.

The Summary Court also had 438 new civil cases filed last year.

The case load in the Court of Appeal continued in keeping with previous years with 34 criminal and 28 civil appeals filed in 2006.

Achievements in 2006 included progress in providing court accommodations and establishment of a judicial/ legal website.

Two million dollars was made available to complete land acquisitions for a new building to house the Summary Courts, and procure the surveying and architectural work, he said.

A government architect is available for oversight and a project committee has been formed.

Specifications the building and an annex to house a Family Court are being prepared. The court will be on a site in the Half-Way Pond area of George Town, between Smith Road and Lyndhurst Road (across from Jose’s gas station).

The judicial/ legal website is available in its first phase, he said. Anyone will be able to access public information.

The site address is Mr. Smellie’s speech of Wednesday, in its entirety, will be available on the website shortly. Previous speeches are already posted.

Future development will provide access to laws and law reports.

Eventually there will links for filings and payments online by means of authorised access.

Mr. Smellie also addressed the subject of legal aid, noting that public expenditure in this is a matter of concern.

He said every society is obligated to ensure people are provided legal aid from the state if they are charged with offences that could result in the loss of liberty and the defendant cannot afford an attorney.

The legal aid budget is modest when compared with the increasing number of cases and their growing complexity. But every dollar is properly spent, he said.

When someone is charged with the most serious offence and it could result in years of imprisonment, they are entitled to able and experienced counsel, Mr. Smellie said.

If defence attorneys are unwilling to act without a lead counsel from overseas, it will seldom be appropriate for the court to insist that they should do so.

If counsel is brought from overseas, they are paid the same minimal rates as local counsel, he said, which is much less than commercial rates. Airfare and accommodations are provided only at minimal economy rates.

There are rules requiring that all applicants satisfy a means test and, in civil cases, the clear merits of the case must also be shown.

Mr. Smellie said the Legal Aid Law needs to be amended to make this clear.

His speech followed a ceremonial police honour guard outside the Law Courts Building. Attorneys, court staff and visitors then attended Court One, where Acting Attorney General Cheryll Richards moved the opening. The motion was seconded by Charles Quin QC on behalf of the Law Society and by Ramon Alberga QC, senior member of the bar.

The audience included Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts and Cabinet Ministers Alden McLaughlin, Charles Clifford and Arden McLean.