DPP wants lawyers to embrace Bench trials
Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Paula Llewellyn is appealing to members of the private Bar to impress upon their clients, especially those who are in custody, not to wait for a jury trial, but to consider having their matters tried by a judge alone.
Jury trials in the Circuit Courts islandwide have been suspended in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, a number of accused have been opting not to have a Bench trial and instead have requested to have their matters set for a further date in order to have a jury trial. Others who had matters set for trial have also opted not to have their matters tried now by a judge alone.
“Since the onset of the pandemic in Jamaica, in March last year, we’ve had to push forward a lot of cases that were on the trial list because my learned friends at the private Bar did indicate, for the most part, that they would prefer to have the matters tried by jury as opposed to judge alone,” Llewellyn said during yesterday’s opening of the Michaelmas Term in the Supreme Court in Kingston.
She further noted that while the courts managed to dispose of a number of cases through measures such as offering no evidence, entering nolle prosequi, and Bench trials with the cooperation of defence lawyers, a lot more trials could have been dealt with if the some of the lawyers had been more receptive to Bench trials.
Consequently, the DPP said: “I am going to ask my friends at the defence Bar to consider – or reconsider, in light of the fact that we are having a recent surge in COVID-19 figures – that they liaise with their clients, especially clients in custody, to seek to prevail upon them that where trial dates have been set that though they may desire a jury trial, they seriously consider having a judge-alone trial.
“We are available for constant discussion with the private Bar, and I know that the Bench would not be averse in terms of case management in respect of making every accommodation for a change of mind as it relates to the trial of cases,” she added.
Llewellyn also pointed out that of the 1,089 matters on the list for the Michealmas Term, only a fraction are set for trial.
“It is important that the public understand that although we may have 1,000, approximately, cases for the Michaelmas Term, in reality, only 120 is set for trial in terms of the Circuit Court matters, and we have perhaps another 100-and-odd set in the Gun Court over the entire term from September to December, and we have been trying to be operationally and administratively astute,” she said.
Attorney-at-law Peter Champagnie, who represented the private Bar, also called on the Bar associations to sensitise their members about the benefits of the different types of trials available.
“Perhaps analogous to vaccine hesitancy is the hesitancy of some members of the private Bar to embrace the concepts of a Bench trial ... ,” he said.
“ ... We are here to counsel and that we are not to impose our personal preferences in terms of the modality of trial and we are to explain in great details the benefits and virtues of each process,” he added.
While noting that the COVID- 19 pandemic has been a challenging time for the courts, he lauded the system for remaining efficient in disposing of cases, especially in the Gun Court.
Chief Justice Bryan Sykes stressed that the decision not to resume jury trials this term was not taken lightly and that the recent spike in COVID-19 cases and the emergence of new variants of the disease were among factors considered.
“The decision was taken that across the island, we could not safely resume jury trials. We felt that it was simply too risky,” he said, pointing to the selection aspect of the jurors, which involved them being together in numbers, as well as the inability of the jury box to adequately accommodate them as examples.