Senator, the Hon. Z. C. Allyson Maynard Gibson QC
Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs
Commonwealth of The Bahamas
The Opening of the Legal Year
Supreme Court, Bank Lane
Nassau, The Bahamas
11th January, 2017
May it please you My Lord Chief Justice and Judges of the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas. With Your Lordship’s permission, may I acknowledge the presence of The President and Judges of the Court of Appeal; The Most Rev’d Patrick Pinder; and the Rt. Rev’d Laish Boyd (as I thank them for their usual words of encouragement at the Red Mass and today at the Cathedral during the services for the opening of the legal year), ACKNOWLEDGE OTHERS PRESENT…
My Lord, at the Opening of the Legal Year we have the opportunity to thank God that we live in a Christian nation that upholds the Rule of Law; account for the work of the Office of the Attorney General; reflect on what we have done so that people feel the spiritual concept of “justice”, and, provide a vision for the year ahead.
Yesterday, as I marched with thousands of Bahamians to observe the Golden Anniversary of Majority Rule, I thanked God for the opportunity to embrace and celebrate our noble history; the courage, sacrifice and vision of our forebearers and the progress made by The Bahamas and Bahamians.
Today, with My Lords and the Bar, I marched, as we do every year, to proclaim to the world that we look to God for direction so that justice may flower in The Bahamas.
In January 1967 our forebearers, including members of the Bar, forged a plan to bring stability and prosperity to our country. They said no one should fear that people of colour were managing their own affairs. As Bahamians, we continue pushing forward, upward, onward together along the path our forebearers laid for us as we strive to modernize our Bahamaland.
My Lord, as with governance, the administration of justice has come a long way in 50 years. Perhaps, the most obvious change is that the vast majority of Judges are Bahamians and all are persons of colour. Today, we have Bahamians of colour as Chief Justice, President of the Court of Appeal, Attorney General and Commissioner of Police. And the courts of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas continue to be administered so that the world can mark the manner of our bearing and see a modern Bahamaland.
My Lord, the administration of justice in our country has seen a major transformation over the past 4 years as a direct result of Swift Justice.
The new process for the review of files before persons are charged has resulted in a 67% conviction rate – which has more than doubled from 2012 when it was 31%. We think that persons should be charged with offences only if the prosecution believes that, based upon the evidence at the time of charge, a reasonable jury will convict. With the leadership of the Director of Public Prosecutions, collaboration with the Royal Bahamas Police Force and other justice system stakeholders, this new approach and these dramatic results will make our streets and homes and communities safer.
Over the last year, in 2016, the conviction rate for murder trials was 75%.
In the past, witnesses to crimes and the families of victims were victimized again, forced on an emotional roller coaster, because of successive adjournments of hearings, including trials. That has changed, in a big way: the time to present a VBI has decreased to 67 days in 2016 — down from 344 days in 2012. I pursuit of justice, the team of prosecutors in the Office of the Attorney-General has been working diligently to move cases forward swiftly.
I am proud to say that new systems and having 10 criminal courts sitting concurrently resulted in 110 more cases being heard in 2015 than 2012. And that in 2015, 40 matters were heard in the same year as charge (2015).
The new criminal courts and new systems of preparing cases for trial are ensuring that closure comes more quickly for the victims of crime and their families. Trials that occur 6 to 10 years after charge have become a thing of the past.
We are monitoring carefully what appears to be a trend of fewer applications for bail for murder and crimes against the person.
I have been advised that very few democracies, if any, have seen such successes and sweeping changes in their judicial system in just 4 years.
Swift Justice is working. The judicial system in the Commonwealth of The Bahamas works and it has shown significant improvement. Undoubtedly, there is room for improvement – there always is — but things are finally, finally moving in the right direction.
Our system enshrines the separation of powers. Importantly, it also demands cooperation and collaboration between the branches of government. There is deepening cooperation between the Executive and the Judiciary.
Perhaps the greatest indicators of this cooperation and collaboration are the systemic changes that Swift Justice has put in place simultaneously, to close off what I call the 4 escape routes – conflicts in calendars; unavailability of transcripts; inability to empanel juries and inability to obtain representation for accused persons. The changes respectively implemented are: integrated justice; a new court reporting unit utilizing new systems; a new jury administration system and the Office of the Public Defender. These changes and their successes have been possible because you, My Lord Chief Justice, are committed to our cooperation and collaboration. Thank you. More will be said about the Office of the Public Defender at its formal opening later this month. I’d like to thank its Board Justice Joseph Strachan, Dr. David Allen, Archdeacon James Palacious, Mrs. Cheryl Bazard and the President of the Bar Association.
The use of technology has amplified the effect of closing off the escape routes. Videoconferencing capacity exists in every court. And all matters between charge and trial can now be conducted by videoconference from the Department of Correctional Services at Fox Hill. This means that only persons being tried need to be brought down daily from Fox Hill to the Courts in Bank Lane. The motoring public has already felt the positive effect of this change. And, citizens who have sat on juries have already applauded the use of digital projection of photographs and the recent inclusion of digital projection of documents. My Lord Justice Bernard Turner and Keva Smith have championed these efforts and I’d like to acknowledge and thank them.
The Commissioner of Police, also a champion of the use of technology, has supported the heightened collaboration and cooperation between the Police and Prosecution in the preparation of matters for trial and providing information to the Prosecution to enable effective opposition to bail for serious and repeat offenders. The successes of Swift Justice are in no small measure due to his personal support and leadership.
The President of the Bar Association has been robust in his support of the now regular consultations between Prosecution and the Defence Bar. The Defence Bar has supported the establishment of Plea Bargaining guidelines and efforts to save trial time by the use of stipulations. For example, why in a murder trial should 4 witnesses be called to prove that the victim is dead? As we move forward we should remember that wasted time prevents other victims from having their day in court.
My Lord, if the disposal of matters is the yardstick by which the efficiency of the administration of justice measured, we have reason to be optimistic. Aside from last year during which there were setbacks like Hurricane Matthew, the amount of cases disposed of has increased year-by-year since 2012. In fact, 2015 was a landmark year, as the Supreme Court disposed of 232 matters.
My Lord, I respectfully suggest that 200 should be set as the minimum number of matters annually to be disposed of by the Supreme Court. This is a reasonable expectation: Anticipating 40 working weeks per year, with the cooperation and collaboration of all stakeholders, the court can achieve it by efficiently managing its time and resources, and accepting that properly case managed trials should not take longer than 2 weeks. In fact, given what was achieved in 2015, surely 200 cases disposed of is a conservative target.
My Lord, I respectfully suggest that more than 200 cases will be disposed of if prosecution and defence routinely use stipulations and if the courts embrace further systemic improvements including, routinely receiving the evidence of pathologists and other physicians by videoconference. Also, if the courts routinely apply the law that vulnerable witnesses may testify by videoconference with their face and voices distorted, the courts can assist in protecting witnesses who are afraid.
We expect that the biometric bail tracking system, due to be launched this year, together with prosecution of those who violate bail conditions will close the “revolving door on bail” and assist in protecting our communities and homes.
My Lord, citizens and residents are key stakeholders in the administration of justice – it is with them that justice must begin and end. Citizens witness and report crimes, and, refusing to be intimidated, give evidence at trial. It is they who must be prepared to serve as jurors for 2 months, under the new system, in exchange for not being called upon to serve again for at least 2 years. Every effort will continue to be made to educate and inform citizens about their role as key stakeholders. Without witnesses and jurors, there can be no trials. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that criminals are swiftly brought to justice and to make our communities safer.
My Lord each case disposed of is not just a number– it is proof of a system that dispenses justice freely and fairly. Also, it represents a criminal being brought to justice, the family of the victim or victims themselves finding peace, or the vindication of an innocent man. My Lord, our continued success enables citizens to feel justice flowing down like a river.
This year we will extend Swift Justice to the Magistrates Courts. Prosecutors from the Office of the Attorney General will prosecute in the Magistrates Court serious matters such as drug, gun and trafficking offences. We thank you My Lord Chief Justice and the Commissioner of Police for your support of this initiative. More will be said about it as it is launched.
My Lord, the Supreme Court on its civil side has also been featured in the national and international arena. It is clear that, notwithstanding that obstacles and challenges – even serious ones — remain, the judicial system in The Bahamas works. 50 years beyond Majority Rule we should celebrate this fact, and never cease our determination to reach higher. Our country remains attractive to national and international investors because our democracy is stable and they can trust that our courts- our Judges- are competent, honest, hard working and independent.
As I end, I assure you My Lord, and the people of The Bahamas, that the team at the Office of Attorney-General is an excellent, dedicated and professional team. Their hard work and support have led to significant accomplishments through Swift Justice and our many other initiatives.
The Permanent Secretary Marco Rolle, the Director of Legal Affairs Antoinette Bonamy, the Director of Public Prosecutions Garvin Gaskin, Director of Law Reform Tina Roye, Consultants Christie, Klein and Collie and their Teams (legal, clerical and administrative) strive everyday to serve our country at the highest standard.
My Lord, I would also like to thank the Prime Minister for appointing me and for reposing confidence in me.
I thank God for health, strength and guiding my footsteps.
I thank our partners at the COMSEC, IDB and the U.S. State Courts (noting that Justice Webb who is assisting in the formation of the Office of the Public Defender is present today.
Thank you My Lord Chief Justice for your leadership and for embracing the opportunity of weekly consultations so that the justice system may be an important pillar in a modern Bahamas.
I also thank members of the clergy, former Chief Justices and other Judges, former Attorneys-General, members of the Inner Bar and scores others who have prayed for and with me and offered advice.
Finally, I thank my family – my parents who are my role models (my Mother, Lady Maynard, was the first female juror in The Bahamas), my siblings who support the principle of public service imbued in us by our parents, my daughters (Zoe [here today] and Demetra) and husband, Max (here today). I am deeply grateful for their love and support that has enabled me to serve as the Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs.
My Lord as we move towards 100 years of Majority Rule I pray that we stakeholders in the administration of justice never forget the words of Micah and that the preservation of our Freedom will be guaranteed by our daily commitment to … “an abiding respect for Christian values and the Rule of Law”.