By LAMECH JOHNSON
Tribune Staff Reporter
OUTGOING Chief Justice Sir Michael Barnett said the criticism levelled at the judiciary over the grant of bail is “at times discouraging” as he urged critics to take stock of the facts over the issue.
His advice was geared towards critics who attribute the court’s discretion to grant bail to persons accused of serious offences as the reason for escalating crime. He added that it is “unfair” to blame the country’s crime woes solely on “flaws” in the legal system.
His remarks came during a ceremony to mark the opening of the new Legal Year and a month after Attorney General Allyson Maynard-Gibson expressed hope that the judiciary “will do everything to prevent what appears to be judge shopping” over bail.
Late last year, Police Commissioner Ellison Greenslade expressed concern about bail, highlighting a case where bail was granted to a “prolific offender” nearly a month after another judge rejected his request.
“We (judges) work in challenging conditions and have often been the subject of unfair criticism but our work is transparent,” said Sir Michael.
“By law, our proceedings are for the most part public proceedings and our decisions and reasons are matter of public record.
“I note it is at times discouraging to hear criticisms (of) our decisions when those criticising us have not informed themselves of the reasons for our decisions and the evidence and the circumstances that are presented to us.
“I urge those criticising justices, particularly for the exercise of our discretion to grant bail, to familiarise themselves with the record of the proceedings before engaging in any public discourse.”
He said that the court was not immune or asking to be immune of criticism, adding: “We ask that such criticism is only made when persons have properly informed themselves of the facts.”
In the summer of 2014, the Christie administration outlined restrictions in a bill to amend the Bail Act that sought to lessen the number of violent offenders who receive bail.
Under the former Bail Act, people charged with such major crimes as murder, armed robbery, rape, possession of automatic weapons, possession of a firearm with intent and kidnapping are prohibited from receiving bail except when the court believes such people have not been tried – or are unlikely to be tried – within a reasonable time, so long as certain conditions are met.
Under the amended Bail Act, applicants, as opposed to the prosecution, will have the onus of proving that they should be granted bail. The court will be forced to consider the safety of the victims of their crimes when deciding whether to grant bail.
In response to the passing of the amended legislation in September 2014, lawyer Wayne Munroe said the government should focus on promptly trying accused criminals to keep them off the street instead of the “unnecessary” new bail restrictions.
The government has promised new criminal courts as a way to tackle the issue, to add to the six criminal courts currently in use. Mrs Maynard Gibson expects the 10 criminal courts to be hearing matters by March of this year.
Yesterday, Sir Michael noted that while the additional courts will “have a positive effect, we must not be under the illusion that this is the solution to the vexing problem of crime.”
“This society must find a way to address the problem of dysfunctional families, witness intimidation, persons seeking to avoid jury duty, for a prison system that pardons some criminals and for an unforgiving society that is not willing to give persons who have spent time in prison a second chance.”
“These are all matters outside the control of the justice system. And so it is with respect, unfair and in my view misleading, to blame the flaws of the judicial system as the cause for the increase in crime.”