Chief Justice Ivor Archie has warned that the criminal justice system is on the verge of collapse.
Presenting statistics for the High Court Criminal Division in his annual address on the opening of the 2020/2021 Law Term, yesterday afternoon, Archie noted that while the Judiciary was able to dispose of 97 indictable cases, despite limitations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, only 12 indictments for cases had been filed by the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) over the past year.
Archie said: “We can take no comfort in the statistics of a clearance rate (ratio of cases filed to disposed) of 800 per cent.”
“It hides a distressing truth which is the criminal justice system is near collapse owing to factors beyond the Judiciary’s control,” Archie added.
While Archie admitted that the disposition rate was affected by difficulties in safely hosting jury trials during the pandemic and by a shortage of judges caused by promotions to the Court of Appeal, he suggested that there was no excuse for the delay in filing indictments, which is the process required to have a case join the long list of cases awaiting trial in the High Court after a preliminary inquiry is completed.
Archie stated that through improvements in the Judiciary’s court reporting and transcription department, the Judiciary was able to eliminate its longstanding delay in providing transcripts for the indictments to the DPP’s Office.
“It can’t be that,” Archie said, as he also questioned the limited use of plea bargaining and maximum sentence indications (MSIs) for persons wishing to plead guilty to offences and avoid a trial.
In his reporting on the Judiciary’s statistics, Archie noted that filings and dispositions in the Court of Appeal, High Court Civil Division, and the Family and Children Court were all lower in 2019/2020 compared to 2018/2019. However, he noted that because of the proportional decrease in both, there was a negligible effect on the overall clearance rate for the divisions.
He did boast that the disposition of non-contentious probate cases had risen by 22 per cent largely due to improvements by the Judiciary over the past few years.
During his speech, Archie sought to address critics of the Judiciary’s ongoing move to suspend almost all physical hearings during the pandemic in favour of virtual hearings.
“Everything we do in the Judiciary is data-driven and based on research and the best available scientific knowledge,” he said, as he noted that recent rapid expansion of the video conferencing for hearings was facilitated by Judiciary’s efforts to improve and modernize the organisation even before the pandemic.
Archie also dismissed claims that judges would have difficulties in assessing the demeanour of witnesses, who testify virtually from external locations as opposed to before them in the courtroom.
“In any event, numerous studies have confirmed that even trained professionals are not significantly better than a flip of a coin in determining from demeanour, whether a witness is telling the truth,” Archie said.
While Archie noted that the Judiciary was currently in the process of holding consultations with stakeholders on facilitating jury trials and some in-person hearings, while public health regulations for the pandemic are in place, Archie encouraged remanded prisoners to utilise judge-alone trials.
Stating that much criticism of such trials was unfounded, Archie pointed to the fact that of the 14 judge-alone trials done since the start of the pandemic, three resulted in convictions, seven in not guilty verdicts, two in guilty pleas, and two were aborted due to unavoidable circumstances.
During the speech, Archie maintained his tradition of advocating for more administrative and financial autonomy for the Judiciary.
While Archie noted that the organisation had attempted numerous initiatives to improve its performance, he claimed that it was regularly stymied by bureaucracy.
Archie noted that although Finance Minister Colm Imbert reiterated the Government’s commitment to facilitate the constant request in his 2015 budget presentation, the Executive is yet to respond to recommendations to facilitate its desired autonomy, which was commissioned by him and prepared by the National Centre for State Courts and the local United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) office, since 2016.
He suggested that the Judiciary’s track record of making the best of limited resources should buttress the argument in favour of autonomy.
“I can only hope it would drive home the point that we can be trusted to manage efficiently and effectively in the current national environment of severely strained resources,” Archie said.
Archie also sought to given an update on court facilities across the country that are currently under renovation.
He noted that the relocation of the High Court Civil Division from the Hall of Justice to an area of the International Waterfront Centre, which previously housed Parliament while the Red House was being renovated, was delayed due to financing issues. It is now set to be completed in the next few months.
The relocation will facilitate the conversion of civil courtrooms at the Hall of Justice to host only criminal trials and help reduce the backlog of criminal cases before the High Court.