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The end of trial by jury in the Caribbean?


by Oscar Ramjeet Fri Sep 27, 2013

THE Magna Carta of 1215 secured trial by jury — 12 men to make a decision or examine findings of fact, which are then applied by a judge. Several decades ago, women were asked to join the males in the ajudicating process, but recently there have been calls from several quarters and countries for this process to change.{{more}}

Belize is the first country in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) to introduce the change in certain serious criminal matters, including murders and attempted murder. It passed the Indictable Procedure (Amendment) Act and Juries (Amendment) Act in August 2011, and went further when the country’s Chief Justice, Guyanese born Kenneth Benjamin, dealt with the first case of attempted murder and he found the accused guilty of shooting a wellknown senior counsel, Rodwell Williams, who is the law partner of Prime Minister,Dean Barrow.

Trinidad and Tobago Chief Justice Ivor Archie, speaking at the opening of the law year in Port of Spain, called for the abolition of trial by jury, pointing out that “quality of justice received was questionable” and added that due to the secrecy of the deliberations of juries, the determination of guilt or innocence is neither transparent nor accountable, in the dispensation of justice. He also pointed out that magistrates and judges have to give reasons for decisions, while jurors do not.

Two former chief justices of the twin island republic, Michael de La Bastide, who was the first president of the Caribbean Court of Justice, and Sat Sharma, agreed with their successor, but one of the leading criminal lawyers in that country, Israel Khan, SC, has issued a statement disagreeing with the three top jurists, arguing that justice will be better served with twelve men and women of their peers adjudicating. A few other criminal defense attorneys also supported Khan.

In Guyana, the former Speaker of the House Ralph Ramkarran, who is also a prominent senior counsel, feels that the jury system should be discontinued, adding that “the idea is to reduce possibilities of guilty persons escaping justice.” He pointed out that the jury system has failed Guyana and that convictions are rarely obtained from juries. However, the country’s attorney general, Anil Nandlall, and a few criminal defence attorneys disagreed with the former speaker, who maintained his stand although conceding that “juries are more in touch with life and on ground that somehow translates into a truer verdict”. He nevertheless argues that there is no constitutional right in Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana to a trial by jury.

In St Vincent and the Grenadines, it’s trial by jury, following laws the country inherited from Britain after independence in October 1979 and subsequent legislation of the Jury Act.

A few prominent attorneys in St Vincent and the Grenadines were in full agreement with trial by jury in criminal cases, because of the size of the country, but of late, at least two of them have had a change of heart, because they feel that the jury system is expensive to maintain, and a lot of judicial time is being spent on jury trial. They also say trial judges have to be very careful not to say anything to prejudice the jury, which the lawyers will use in case of an appeal.

As a former Director of Public Prosecutions (Acting) and Solicitor General, I wish to point out that magistrates, who are less experienced than judges, have been adjudicating in criminal cases without a jury, but they have limited jurisdiction in imposing sentences – at most 10 years, while judges can impose life sentences – even the death penalty in murder cases, although nowadays these sentences are commuted to life imprisonment.