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Panel of judges a better option

Friday, March 17, 2017

The decision by the Government to introduce a bill to abolish trial by jury is receiving mixed reviews. This, coming on the heels of a similar proposal to abolish preliminary inquiries and removing the authority to determine if a matter should be heard summarily or indictable from the magistrate’s court and placing it in the purview of the office of the DPP.

That the DPP will now be charged with the responsibility of determining whether a matter should be heard summarily (by a magistrate only) or is indictable (by a judge and jury) should not be a problem once the DDP’s office is adequately staffed for this purpose and is a way of removing this apparently burdensome responsibility given the huge backlog of cases in the magistrates courts.

The more contentious issue appears to be the decision to remove trial by jury and place the matter before a judge. The right of an accused person to be tried by a jury of his peers is steeped in the tradition of English law which has become part of local statute law. Again, the need for expediency given the huge backlog of cases with respect to indictable offences appears to be the impetus behind this change because many an innocent person now languish in remand, sometimes for an inordinately long time awaiting trial.

The consensus across the board, however, appears to be rooted in the numbers, albeit given the proposal that the accused person shall have a choice between a trial by a jury of his peers as opposed to trial by a single judge (sometimes referred to as a hybrid trial), although this is the case in other jurisdictions such as South Africa.

A vast cross-section of the population appears to disagree that a single person (albeit a judge) will now have the power over life or death with respect to capital offences as opposed to a jury which consists of a group of people.

Given the extent of the apparent push back both in and out of Parliament over the single judge proposal, maybe the AG should consider amending the bill in such a way that instead of a single judge presiding over these matters, a panel of at least three judges (an odd number) should be appointed to adjudicate just as what now obtains in the local court of appeal. I’ve never heard of any protest against this arrangement with respect to the local court of appeal.




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