AG Speech: The Opening of the Legal Year 2016

 

We live in a wonderful country where at the Opening of the Legal Year, at the Cathedral and at the Red Mass we invoke God’s blessings and are reminded that God calls upon us to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God”. These words of the Prophet Micah are as important today as they were over 2000 years ago.

This week we also celebrated Majority Rule Day, a day which, save for Emancipation Day, represents more than any other moment in our history our commitment to justice.

We are called today, as were our forebears 49 years ago, to demonstrate the courage required to work for justice.

We sometimes forget that in 1958, Bahamians determined to have justice in their time, went on a national strike, bringing the country to a stand still. Our forebears recognized that ordinary citizens needed to participate in the fight. There was a unity of purpose: Bahamians knew that justice would not be given to them, and they knew it could not be bought.

They understood that it would be unity in commitment, unity in sacrifice, and unity in tenacity which would bring about that noble victory.

In 1965, when Sir Lynden Pindling hurled the mace, the object symbolizing the power of the British monarchy in its colony 4,000 miles away, into Rawson Square, that act represented a profound commitment to justice – a desire for deep, fundamental change. He did not do this alone — Rawson Square was filled with a multitude of proud Bahamians who gathered in a show of solidarity with their representatives in their quest for justice.

Today it is both the spirit of our ancestors and the future of our children which call us to another great fight – the fight against crime, the fight against violence, and the fight to establish a nation in which each of us can live without fear. There is no doubt that crime in our country has risen to oppressive levels. All Bahamians are calling for justice, and they are demanding that it be swift. Our work – to build a safe and peaceable nation – is no less urgent than the work of our founding patriots.

John Locke, the great enlightenment philosopher, urged: “The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom”. It is freedom we are after – freedom from fear, freedom from violence — and this new fight for freedom must be defined by our will to protect the rule of law.

Today I call upon every Bahamian to exhibit the patriotism of generations past; the same spirit of national unity and sacrifice which led to Majority Rule.

Today we must recommit to the promise we made to one another the day we adopted our Constitution — that of “an abiding respect for Christian values and the Rule of Law”.

We must show each other that this promise is more than words on paper – that is etched into our collective conscience.

Those of us gathered here today — Judiciary, members of the Bar, prosecutors and defence counsel alike — must understand: We don’t have jobs. We have a calling. As officers of the Court we must actively promote justice, and understand, deeply within, the spiritual nature of the battles we wage alongside and on behalf of the Bahamian people.

We must commit ourselves each day to fixing that which is broken.

We must ignore the slings and arrows and do what is right, and do what is hard, and feel the justice of our cause.

The Swift Justice program is one front in this battle. It is working and we are moving in the right direction. That is what matters most.

The progress is tangible for the families who see persons accused of murder brought to justice and convicted within one year of being charged. The progress is real for those victims of sexual abuse and rape who have seen persons convicted within 12 months of being charged. And it will be evident by all those who now can go online to discover whether the person who wreaked havoc on their lives has been released on bail — even as we work to eliminate the revolving door on bail.

The impetus for Swift Justice remains this basic concept – justice delayed is justice denied.

We will not stop working until persons are routinely brought to trial within 2 years. We have shown that it can and will be done.

The implementation of an information management system to track and monitor improvements and obstacles has allowed the Office of the Attorney-General to respond strategically to the challenges we face. As a result, we have also been able to observe, document and build on improvements in effectiveness and efficiency.

For almost two decades, and across successive administrations, an historic backlog of over 1000 cases has loomed, exacerbated by poor record keeping and inefficient procedures. Think of how many people were affected by this – how many lives put on hold. But today I can announce that, for the first time, backlog cases are being properly inventoried and their progress tracked. We disposed of more than 100 backlog cases in 2015.

An expanded Backlog Review Team is working diligently to arrest and reverse the growth of the backlog, despite a growing caseload; four additional prosecutors have been given the specific task of bringing the cases we will pursue to trial, and we have also formed a Backlog Steering Committee, which includes representatives from the Office of the Attorney-General, the Judiciary, law enforcement and the Defence Bar. This committee has been established to monitor the reduction in the backlog and to collaborate to further improve the efficiency of the criminal justice system.

In 2012, when I was appointed to the Office of the Attorney-General, this office secured convictions at a rate of 31%. In 2015, this rate has doubled to 63% — an accomplishment not possible without the commitment and sacrifice of our hardworking prosecutors.

These improvements in conviction rates are also the result of a renewed focus on witness care. The Witness Care Unit, which tracks and maintains contact with victims and witnesses, renewed its commitment this year with new standard operating procedures. These new protocols aim to ensure that victims and witnesses are contacted at the stage of arraignment, and regularly thereafter. They are also to be advised when trial dates are set and fully informed of measures that can be taken, where necessary, for their anonymity and protection.

In 2012, only 118 cases, roughly, were concluded in the Supreme Court. This past year, 228 cases were concluded. In 2012 no murder matters were concluded within one year of charge. This past year 7 murder matters were concluded within one year of charge. 2015 was a most productive year. This shows that the system can and does work when cases are properly managed.

The numbers are impressive – but this is not about numbers, it is about people. It’s about families who have been able to feel the system working for them and hope for families who are waiting for their matters to be resolved.It is about mothers and fathers – families – who are looking for justice. So while the progress is substantial – it is not enough.

Last year, on this very occasion, I set a lofty goal for the disposal of 350 cases before the Supreme Court. I do not apologize for setting our sights so high – it was the deeply held conviction that truly fundamental change is possible which drove us to conclude an additional 110 cases this year. And we now have the infrastructure and systems in place to meet even loftier targets and eliminate the backlog.

I want to take this time to affirm the independence of our Judiciary and to say thank you for working to confront the challenges we face with courage unparalleled rigour.

Similarly, I thank all of our Swift Justice partners, including the Commissioner of Police, here today, and his team and the entire team at the Office of the Attorney General, lead by the Director of Legal Affairs, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Permanent Secretary.

The Bar President and the Criminal Defence Bar have partnered with us in our pursuit of efficiency. I thank them for their support. We continue to rely on defence counsel to collaborate with us in implementing, during this Holy Year of Mercy, effective Plea Bargaining, a critical tool.

I also thank the team of independent experts that we enlisted in 2012 – from the Inter-American Development Bank (represented here today by Her Excellency Florencia Attademo-Hirt), the Commonwealth Secretariat and the U.S. State Courts (represented here today by Her Excellency Lisa Johnson). The challenges we face are not unique to The Bahamas, and where there are lessons to be shared, we are eager to learn them.

In 2016 we expect the Office of the Public Defender to be fully operational. Office space has already been refurbished in the old Parliament Hotel Building and we look forward to this important new initiative which will ensure advocacy for the indigent and eliminate delays due to the inability to procure defence counsel. We thank Principal Galanos of the Eugene Dupuch Law School and Justice Joseph Strachan and his committee for all of their help in advancing this Office.

In 2016, we will focus on the imperative of citizen involvement in the administration of justice. We need citizens to act as witnesses – so it is our responsibility to give them the protection and support they deserve, and we intend to so, from charge through trial. We need citizens to act as jurors – and we ask the Courts to embrace the new juror-friendly provisions of the amended Juries Act. And we need citizens to assist the police.

One of the ways citizens can play an active crime-fighting role is to report when persons are violating bail conditions. As well as reporting online persons who have been admitted to bail, I have asked that we report the conditions of the bail.

If any citizens suspect that those conditions are being violated, they will be able to call a Crime Tipsters Anonymous Hotline so that, upon investigation by the police, that person’s bail can be revoked. And, I have called for an amendment to the Bail Act making violation of bail conditions a strict liability offence punishable by a term of imprisonment.

We are asking Judges to minimize delays and adjournments by routinely using the available technology, including video conferencing; robustly case manage matters; establish a court to hear backlog matters and upon the conclusion of a trial, be ready to preside promptly over another trial. And, recognizing the times in which we live, expedite sexual offences and witness tampering matters.

Concerns remain in relation to persons released on bail having been charged with serious offences, including murder. We urge the Courts to adopt a hands on approach to bail so that persons charged with murder are not readily admitted to bail; recognize that frequently persons admitted to bail might themselves be murdered; ensure that repeat offenders are not admitted to bail; enforce the law by ensuring that persons act as Suretor for only one person admitted to bail; and act promptly to revoke the bail of persons who violate bail conditions.

We at the Office of the Attorney General pledge to do our part by embracing 21st century technology; strengthening our commitment to early disclosure and effective plea bargaining; and by always attending Court ready, willing and able to prosecute matters – from start to finish. We recommit ourselves to availability and accountability.

I call upon every citizen to join those gathered here today – to join the fight for Justice, to free our children from the tyranny of fear. The sideline is no place for those who care about this country.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

I am convinced that if all Bahamians stand together, amazing things will happen. I know this because that is the true story of Majority Rule.

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