Acting Chief Justice Vera Watkins delivers remarks to officially open the new Legal Year. (BIS Photos/Patrick Hanna)
By NICO SCAVELLA
Tribune Staff Reporter
THE country’s top judge has noted that “unfair criticisms” of the country’s judicial system has subsided over the past year, though she reminded those who continue to blame the courts for the country’s crime woes that the courts "do not create criminals”, but society does.
Acting Chief Justice Vera Watkins, in addressing the opening of the 2019 legal year, said while there was a time “not too long ago” that courts “bore the brunt of the blame for the high level of crime in the country”, it is “refreshing” to note that the trend has mostly discontinued.
She said the focus has now shifted to where it ought to be: “on the role of the family in the prevention of crime”.
In September of 2017, outspoken self-styled activist Omar Archer was convicted and sentenced to 21 days in prison by Justice Cheryl Grant-Thompson for contemptuous remarks he previously made about the legal proceedings against former Cabinet minister Shane Gibson. The sentence was suspended once Archer made donations to two charities and performed community service.
That same month, a bench warrant was issued for the arrest of media personality Christina “Chrissy Love” Thompson for failing to appear before the same judge to face charges of contempt of court stemming from certain remarks she made about Mr Gibson’s legal proceedings.
During the opening of the 2018 legal year, former Chief Justice Stephen Isaacs, acting in that capacity at the time, criticised the “uninformed destructive attacks on judicial officers” and stressed the importance of a judiciary free from “extraneous noises” and “improper influences”.
Addressing the topic during Wednesday’s ceremony, ACJ Watkins said: “There was a time not too long ago when the courts bore the brunt of the blame for the high level of crime in the Bahamas. It was convenient for members of the public as well as persons who are held in high esteem by the public, to make public pronouncements that suggest that the proliferation in criminal activities was due to the fact that judges and magistrates were too lenient in their dispensation of sentences and that too many accused persons were being released on bail.
“…It is imperative that society in general and all of those who engage in the practice of blaming the judicial system for the behaviour of the criminal elements in our society, come to the realization that the courts do not create criminals. Criminals are created in the homes and societies in which they live.”
Concerning the issue of the granting of bail, ACJ Watkins further noted that “contrary to popular misconception”, persons brought before the courts are not to be regarded as guilty. Conversely, she said the courts “must regard them as being innocent and the courts must treat them as innocent persons”.
“The courts cannot, therefore, punish innocent persons by denying bail,” she said. “Each bail application must be considered on its own merit and bail can only be denied within the confines of the law. It is the responsibility of the court to provide the facilities to ensure that every person who is accused of a crime is afforded a fair hearing within a reasonable time.
“It is only when accused persons are found guilty of a criminal offence that the court will mete out an appropriate punishment according to the statute law and guidelines set by case law”.
ACJ Watkins further suggested that the judiciary needs more Supreme Court judges, 20 as a matter of fact, particularly to alleviate the case loads Supreme Court judges who deal with civil matters with which they are “inundated.”
According to ACJ Watkins, there are currently 16 substantive Supreme Court judges. Of that number, 10 are assigned to hear criminal matters, and one of those judges presides over matters brought before the Supreme Court in Freeport, Grand Bahama. The other five judges are assigned to hear civil matters. Thus, ACJ Watkins said there are twice as many judges hearing criminal matters.
“A few years ago the Supreme Court Act was amended to increase the maximum number of judges to 20,” she said. “I am of the view that there is a need for 20 judges. The judges hearing civil matters are inundated with cases.”
Despite her calls for more judges, however, ACJ Watkins noted the judiciary’s physical/infrastructural limitations.
“…While the Supreme Court Act makes provisions for 20 justices of the Supreme Court, at the present time there are no accommodations available to house an additional four judges. It is my hope that the judiciary will be able to secure additional accommodations in the near future”.