CJ: Return bail power to magistrates now
At his first address at the opening of the legal year, Acting Chief Justice Stephen Isaacs yesterday called on the government to immediately return the power to grant bail for minor offenses to magistrates.
The 2011 amendment to the Bail Act that removed the authority of magistrates to grant bail for a variety of offenses, which Isaacs referred to as “counterproductive”, is currently facing a constitutional challenge in the Supreme Court.
Former Progressive Liberal Party Cabinet Minister Shane Gibson challenged the amendment after he faced charges of extortion and bribery last year. Though Gibson was granted bail within an hour of his arraignment before a magistrate, his former Cabinet colleague, Kenred Dorsett, spent a night in prison before he was granted bail by a judge for the same offenses.
Isaacs said, “Returning the authority to magistrates to grant bail in all but the most serious offenses, such as murder, manslaughter and armed robbery, ought to be given more than lip service, which is all that has received to date. The statutory authority of magistrates to grant bail for minor offenses ought to be returned forthwith.”
Though well-intentioned, Isaacs said the amendment has created perverse results.
“This a serious issue, and I can only fathom that the aim of the executive was to pitch in on the fight against crime, which is to be commended,” he said. “There have been, however, some perverse results. I use an example, the fact that a magistrate cannot grant bail for these minor offenses, but the police can.”
Isaacs highlighted the difficulty that unrepresented defendants face in seeking bail in the Supreme Court.
He said, “If a defendant cannot afford a lawyer, the process of applying personally is invariably extended over a much longer period, than applications made by a lawyer, who is trained and paid to make such applications.”
Isaacs said that applications by these defendants have increased the workload of the Supreme Court and more “insidiously strands persons in prison for minor offenses prior to trial”.
“This process is counterproductive and instead of being a crime-fighting tool, it has the potential of creating resentment toward the authorities by those young persons caught up in this conveyor belt bail process.”
Isaacs also urged the government to review a Bail Act amendment that criminalizes the breach of bail conditions.
He said, “It is a matter of record that persons are being sent to prison by magistrates on this summary process for up to one year as a punishment for what is a standalone offense — breach of bail conditions. This takes place long before the substantive charge is even heard, on which the accused person may very well be acquitted, but having already spent time in prison for a matter that is ancillary to the original offense.”
Isaacs advocated for a bail management system, which would allow defendants required to sign in as a condition of bail, to do so biometrically.
Isaacs said the kiosk would recognize the defendant’s fingerprint, eliminating the problem of persons being turned away by police for not having proper identification.