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The House of Representatives has given the nod to a Bill amending the Larceny Act, to give force to new legislative provisions specifically targeted at stemming the rise in extortion practices in the island.
The Bill seeks to make it an offence for a person to make unwarranted demands with menaces in order to gain a benefit or cause loss to another individual. In addition, the Bill requires a person charged with the offence of extortion to satisfy the Court that the demand was warranted in particular circumstances.
National Security Minister, Dr. Peter Phillips who piloted the Bill in the House yesterday (November 1), said the Bill, which targeted “contemporary extortion practices” in the island, was necessary as in recent times extortion and related criminal activities have become more prevalent. He pointed out further that the practice “represented a threat to the economic livelihood of the country as a whole, as in reality business (were) faced with extraordinary costs on their operations”.
“It causes a blight in the very communities where there is an overwhelming demand for economic opportunities and jobs,” Dr. Phillips said.
The Minister noted, however, that since there have been few formal reports made to the police, many prosecutions were not taking place. The Security Minister said it was felt in part, that the failure of persons to come forward was due to the difficulties under existing legal provisions of bringing charges for the act of extortion.According to Dr. Phillips, the steps that were being taken would enable more effective prosecutions to take place.
“We believe that the amendments will make an important contribution, not only to demonstrate the seriousness with which the society and this Parliament views extortion, but these amendments should facilitate easier prosecution and hopefully contribute to bringing the scourge under some level of greater control,” he said.
Opposition Members, while supporting the Bill, said there needed to be more proactive investigations to complement the legislation, as just putting the provision in place was not enough. They maintained that the Bill did not adequately address extortion in its entirety.
In reply, Dr. Phillips said the amendments to the legislation were not to be seen as the final adjustments to the principal Act, but should be “viewed as a speedy response to a particular problem”. The Minister further noted that the Bill was not purported to be a resolution to all existing issues.
The amended section provides that every person who makes an unwarranted demand with menaces, with a view to gain for himself or another with the intent to cause loss to another, will be guilty of the offence.
The subsection also sets out the elements of the offence of extortion that the prosecution will have to prove. A ‘demand’ under the Act, may be in writing, orally or by conduct. The term ‘menaces’ is not limited to threats of violence and includes threats of any action detrimental or unpleasant to the person addressed.
The provision places an evidential burden on the defendant to show reasonable grounds for making the demand with menaces was warranted.
Under the Act, a person found guilty will be liable on conviction before a Resident Magistrate to imprisonment with hard labour for a term not exceeding five years and on conviction in a Circuit Court, imprisonment for a term not exceeding 15 years.