Senators warn of Evidence Act dilemma
THE DEBATE by lawmakers in the Upper House on proposed changes to the Evidence Act came to a screeching halt yesterday after some legislators raised concerns that one of the amendments being contemplated would place accused persons, particularly the poor, at a grave disadvantage.
While expressing broad support for a bill that seeks to make far-reaching changes to the Evidence Act, some government and opposition senators took issue with plans to repeal Section 31(G) of the existing legislation, which deals with computer-generated evidence.
That section states that "where a document tendered into evidence is produced by a computer, it shall be presumed, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, that the computer was, at all material times, working properly".
Government senator and veteran criminal defence attorney K.D. Knight was the first to take aim at this proposed amendment, warning that it would remove a burden now placed on prosecutors and shift that evidentiary burden to a defendant.
"It cannot work, in the interest of justice. Careful how you run before you learn how to creep and walk, because if you don't, you [are] going to fall down," Knight warned.
"It would be a blow to justice Ö . Some accused persons, especially from a certain strata [of society], are going to go to court, hear the word 'guilty' pronounced and that word is [going to be] pronounced merely because the accused person had not the wherewithal to challenge the computer evidence produced Ö and an innocent person goes to prison Ö . I have a difficulty with it," he said.
While noting that the proposed amendments to the Evidence Act were part of the Government's strategy to further improve on the 16 per cent decline in murders last year, another government senator, Lambert Brown, urged his colleagues to tread carefully.
"The poor person will not benefit from this and, therefore, I urge my colleague minister to pause and think about it. Let us take the bill, [along] with the other clauses, and come back another time," Brown suggested.
The concerns prompted the leader of government business in the Senate, A.J. Nicholson, to request an adjournment to "allow for consultations on the issue".
Justice Minister Mark Golding, who is piloting the bill through the Senate, relented after a second adjournment.
"I have listened to the points made in the debate and I want to consider further the points, specifically in relation to computer-generated evidence, and so I would ask that the debate be suspended until further notice," Golding told his colleagues.
Knight, who is a former justice minister, also took a shot at the nation's prosecutorial authority, charging that the attempt to repeal Subsection G of Section 31 of the Evidence Act was "about the anxiety of prosecutors".
"I understand the anxiety of prosecutors. They come into court ill-prepared and then, when their cases crumble, they say it's because they don't have the resources, including the law," he said.
Knight acknowledged that other countries such as Australia have elected to remove similar clauses, but questioned whether Jamaica is ready to adopt this new trend.