His Lordship, Justice Colin Williams, the new resident Judge in Dominica, minced no words in his critical evaluation of Dominica’s Magistracy unequivocally criticizing what he considers the lack of productivity and output, resulting in unsatisfactory levels of performance. He highlighted a need for improvement, noting that some individuals responsible for their duties are not meeting expectations.
“The Magistrates have not been producing at a satisfactory level and those who supposed to be doing their work are not working,” he declared.
His comments were made at the recent conclusion of the September session of the High Court, coinciding with Assistant Superintendent Handel Joseph’s report on Prison Delivery. Joseph revealed that among the 261 inmates currently held at the Dominica State Prison, a staggering 131 constitute the remand population. To address this pressing issue, he advocated for a more expeditious handling of Court proceedings.
In response, Justice Williams emphatically asserted that the primary responsibility for the delay squarely rests on the sluggishness within the Magistrate’s Court, questioning the reluctance by members of the judiciary to address these glaring problems.
“…but when are afraid to tell those who are responsible that they are not doing what they are supposed to do, when we try to shield people, this is the problem,” he asserted. “We know where the problem is but nobody wants to say because people fraid to say to their friends you playing the fool man.”
He raised serious concerns about the lack of punctuality in the Court proceedings highlighting the “unacceptable” scenarios where the members of the public are forced to stand outside long past the Court start time, awaiting its opening.
“You cannot have the Magistrate Court which is supposed to start at 9:00 a.m., and 10 o’ clock in the morning you still on the road somewhere and people standing outside waiting for the Court to open and leave at whatever time you want.”
The breakdown of crimes leading to the high remand populations was also revealed, with murder and burglary cases dominating the remand statistics. Astonished, Justice Williams expressed profound disbelief, over the unprecedented occurrence in his career.
“This is the first time in my career that an assizes closed without a single matter to be done. However over 100 people are on remand were left on remand. There is no justification on the face of this earth why this should be happening in Dominica today. But unless we can call out those who are supposed to do their job and they are not doing it then we will not find a solution.”
Reflecting on his experiences elsewhere, he drew a sharp contrast:
“I went to Belize in 2018 to deal with backlog of matters and cases five and six years old were deemed to be part of the backlog…but 2023 in Dominica active matters and new matters are from 2013, are you for real,” he stated displeased. “How can a Preliminary Inquiry take seven years before it is completed at the Magistrate Court but we like it so, because we not telling the Magistrates that they are not doing what they are supposed to do.”
He also fervently addressed the concerning issue of mentally ill individuals in state prisons, highlighting the inappropriateness of housing sick individuals in such facilities.
“There is no reason why 40-something people who are mentally challenged are supposed to be at the state prison, sick people don’t belong in a prison but we sit down and say that is the way it is. If we want change, we have to say it is wrong and we have to change it.”
He further questioned why these issues persist without challenge from members of the judiciary.
“The lawyers seem to like it so because it appears that clients must be paying refresher fees. The only way that a lawyer will not have an issue with what is going on is because they are making money off of it,” he averred. “We have to speak truth to power and that is the only way we will get answers and results. Tell the Magistrates that they cannot continue in such a manner.”
Raising another critical issue, he highlighted the alarming trend of individuals receiving bail for murder in Dominica.
“Individuals accused of one or two murders are out on bail because there’s no prospect of expediting the Preliminary Inquiry.”
Proposing solutions, he suggested consolidating indictable matters before a single Magistrate Court to streamline the process. Additionally, he advocated for the more frequent use of the paper committal process to expedite legal proceedings. Legal practitioners, including Wayne Norde and Attorney Peter Alleyne, echoed concerns about the flawed Court processes. The Director of the Legal Aid Clinic, Alleyne voiced significant concerns regarding the remanding of inmates via Zoom, highlighting a departure from the previous practice of bringing them physically to Court. He emphasized the importance of physical presence in court, underscoring the support and assistance attorneys could provide in the legal proceedings.
“If the court followed the previous procedure, there would be attorneys present who could assist both the court and the prisoners. Currently, remands are conducted remotely by the Magistrate’s Court every week, and in my view, this is unjust to the prisoners.”
Norde on the other hand acknowledged the prevailing issues within the Magistrate’s Court but highlighted that the problems extend beyond the court system itself.
“One of the major problems is that, there is no separation of power, it is evaporating in Dominica,” he contends.
The defense attorney further expressed his backing for advocating judicial reform, indicating the necessity for substantial changes within the judicial framework to address the broader systemic issues affecting the country’s legal system. However, Justice Williams noted the absence of members of Dominica’s judiciary at regional training and forums, raising concerns about its commitment to evolving and improving the justice system.