Priority for remand prisoners' trials, independent coroner's office urged
Justice system review
Stabroek News
June 9, 2002

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A committee appointed by Chancellor of the Judiciary, Desiree Bernard, has recommended that the courts give priority to trying cases of persons in jail on remand.

It also recommends legislation to set up an independent coroner's office that would be responsible for investigating unnatural deaths countrywide. Unnatural death as defined by the Coroner's Act includes death caused by extra-judicial killings; where the death occurred in a sudden violent or unnatural manner; where there is reasonable suspicion that it did not result from natural causes; or where any person is criminally responsible for it.

In an interim report it submitted to the Chancellor last month, the committee said that its recommendation for a coroner's office was prompted by the need to dismantle the mechanism created by the failure to hold inquests, delays in the Chambers of the Director of Public Prose-cutions (DPP), institutional loyalties, poor training, weak leadership, the influence of wealthy patrons, protection and bribery.

Senior Counsel Rex McKay chaired the committee, which was appointed in January and included representatives of the Guyana Bar Association and number of governmental and non-governmental bodies. The committee was set up to review the criminal justice system and make recommendations to address the problems it identified.

An issue of concern to committee, which it felt should be addressed immediately, is the number of persons on remand in prison. The report said that 408 of the 1,514 inmates in the country's prisons were on remand or committed to stand trial. Of this number, 337 are in the Camp Street jail out of a prison population of 821. The report said that there were 87 remand inmates who have been in prison in excess of three years.

Another disturbing fact, according to the committee, is the number of persons in prison on remand for offences, which do not normally carry a prison sentence.

In recommending that priority should be given to prisoners on remand, the committee took account of the Criminal Procedure Act, Chap. 10:01, which provides for admitting bail for all persons who are not charged with murder or treason. As such they say that magistrates should hold preliminary inquiries into these offences as a matter of urgency.

They recommended too that after committal, the depositions should be prepared as a matter of priority and sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and the accused. The committee also suggested that the DPP Chambers should cooperate and give priority to those cases involving persons indicted for murder and treason.

The committee also recommended that cases which could not proceed because the material witness(es) could not be located for whatever reason should be called up at consecutive sessions. After this, the committee proposed, the cases should be called, the accused arraigned and their pleas taken, juries empanelled and the court informed that the material witness(es) could not be found and as a result the prosecution could not proceed. At this stage, the committee said, the court could then discharge the cases for want of prosecution. It said too that the DPP Chambers should initiate the practice of providing the Chancellor and Chief Justice with a list of those cases where the material witnesses could not be found.

In relation to the granting of bail, the committee said that where a magistrate decides to grant bail, he/she must consider the means of the person in order to fix an amount he/she is asked to post. It said that it was not only unlawful, but also futile to fix bail obviously beyond the means of a prisoner.

And it recommended that in cases where excessively high bail was set for minor offences or distant remand dates set as means of forcing a poor defendant to plead guilty, the magistrate concerned should be disciplined for behaviour inconsistent with the proper performance of his/her official duties. The committee said that bail should not be refused for minor offences, which did not carry a custodial sentence.

The committee also looked at the question of bail for offences under the Narcotics Act and recommended that where cases were not heard within a reasonable time, this should be considered a 'special reason' under section 73 of the Act for doing so. It noted that Article 139(4) mandated the High Court to grant bail where cases were not heard in a reasonable time.

The committee observed too that because of prison overcrowding magistrates should consider imposing non-custodial sentences, such as suspended sentences, as imprisonment in an overcrowded prison was a more severe punishment than mere imprisonment. It also observed that legislative sanction should be given to plea-bargaining, contending that the practice would result in the expeditious disposal of cases of persons in custody awaiting trial.

The committee also made other recommendations that could assist in reducing the backlog of criminal cases. These include the expeditious preparation of records of the magistrates' court in cases where appeals were filed. It justified its recommendation by pointing out that the persons sentenced in the High Court were usually sentenced to longer terms of imprisonment and were unlikely to be granted bail pending their appeal.

The committee also recommended that consideration should be given to the creation of two divisions of the Court of Appeal - one dealing with appeals from criminal cases and the other with appeals from civil cases - which could sit simultaneously. It also recommended the enactment of legislation to provide for the number of Justices of Appeal to be increased to seven including the Chancellor but not the Chief Justice.

With regard to the dearth of competent court reporters to record the summing up of the judges, the committee noted that not only training but also the acquisition of the desired level of competence was necessary. It said that persons who have achieved the desired level of competence should be adequately compensated to ensure that they remained in the system.

The committee contended that if all of its recommendations were accepted and implemented they would go some way in easing the overcrowding in the prisons.

With regard to the investigation into unnatural deaths, the committee observed that the Coroner's Act mandates the Coroner to act expeditiously to determine the cause of an unnatural death, which comes to his knowledge. It suggested that the application of the provisions of the act would do much to restore public confidence in the judicial system and allay public disquiet in the many cases of extra-judicial killings by members of the police force.

The report noted that of the 129 fatal police shootings, deaths and disappearances, between 1993-2001, no more than six coroner's inquests were held.