KINGSTON — Debate on the Committal Proceedings Act, 2011, which seeks to abolish preliminary enquiries in Resident Magistrate's Courts, began on Tuesday September 20 in the House of Representatives.
Minister of Justice, Hon. Delroy Chuck, who piloted the Bill, noted that the legislation seeks to abolish preliminary examinations and to provide for committal proceedings. The move, he said, will improve the administration of justice in the courts, by alleviating or reducing problems related to inordinate delay, high legal costs and the unavailability of witnesses to give evidence.
He explained that at present, a person charged with an indictable offence is brought before a Resident Magistrate to determine whether the offence is one within the trial jurisdiction of the Resident Magistrate or the Circuit Court. Where the Resident Magistrate determines that the offence is within the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court, a preliminary examination is conducted with a view to committing the accused to the Circuit Court for trial.
The preliminary examination is intended to achieve three principal objectives: to inform the accused of the nature and content of the case against him; to determine whether there is a prima facie case against the accused; and if a prima facie case has been made, to define the issue to be presented to the Circuit Court and if not, to discharge the accused.
Mr. Chuck told the House that the conduct of preliminary examinations has led to inordinate delays in the trial process, significant case backlog and increased legal costs.
“Instead of ascertaining at the preliminary examination, what are the facts, a full hearing is conducted, which oftentimes significantly delays the completion of the examination. This has contributed to witnesses losing interest and or becoming unavailable to attend court to give evidence,” he informed.
The proposed Bill, he said, is designed to alleviate most of these problems, by making it unnecessary for witnesses to appear in person before the Resident Magistrate, as a determination for committal can be made based wholly on written statements or depositions.
“Not only will this allow for a speedier determination, but it allows for witnesses to remain protected, less likely to be exposed to abuse and harassment. The Bill stipulates the requirements for the admissibility of written statements and the process for the transmission and custody of those statements. This seeks to ensure the authenticity of the written statements relied upon by the Resident Magistrate,” Mr. Chuck added.
Minister Chuck noted that over the period of development of the Bill, the opinions and recommendations of stakeholders were taken into consideration.
The Jamaica Justice System Reform Taskforce, in its final report presented to the Ministry in June 2007, had stated the need for the abolition of preliminary examinations. It also recommended the introduction of an effective charge screening system, which could fulfil the objectives of a preliminary examination, but in a more cost effective way.
By Latonya Linton, JIS Reporter