It has long been claimed that threats against their lives and fear of other forms of reprisals often deter witnesses from giving evidence in criminal cases in Jamaica. Indeed, there is significant factual, and anecdotal, evidence of witnesses to serious crimes being murdered or maimed shortly before court appearances.
But even if there is greater perception than reality to the frequency of such events, there is little doubt that witnesses' fear, and the consequential absence of witnesses, contribute to the backlog of cases in the Jamaican courts. Nearly half a million are outstanding.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the Senate's passage last week of a bill that will allow recorded video and 'live link' evidence by 'vulnerable witnesses' in criminal matters is being widely welcomed, including by this newspaper.
However, the legislative approval by the Senate, where it was piloted by Justice Minister Mark Golding, does not mean it is a done deal. It still has to be passed by the House of Representatives, after which the real work begins: the process of implementation.
And that is where this newspaper has concerns, given the proclivity of the Jamaican authorities to believe that laws and declarations are ends in themselves.
Under this bill, the court, acting on its own accord, or on the application of a party to a case, can rule that vulnerable witnesses - such as children, victims of sex crimes, or persons whose fear or other genuine problems could impair their testimony - should be allowed the 'special measure' of testifying electronically.
But Section 3 (4) of the bill says: "The court shall not issue a direction under subsection (1) unless arrangements to implement the special measure are available to the court."
That provision is understandable. It would be nonsense for a judge to make a ruling for the taking of evidence by video link, if there is not the technical capacity for the court to comply with the order.
In Jamaica's case, the problem will not be the absence of the technology. It is more likely to be its unavailability in existing courts that often lag on some of the more basic technological requirements, such as the real-time availability on computers for stenographical notes.
courts must be equipped
The responsible minister, of course, can designate other venues as places to take video evidence, and the court can conduct its proceedings at such places. But such ad hoc arrangements, shuffling judges, court staff and the parties to proceedings from place to place, without their normal support systems, would hardly be the best way to manage the justice system.
The bottom line, therefore, is that the courts should be appropriately equipped so that the legislation can be implemented in full at the earliest possible time, rather than having the minister, as he will have the power to do, bring it on stream on a piecemeal basis.
It is urgent, also, that the rules of court governing application to give evidence electronically and for the management of these proceedings be quickly developed and be ready for the early implementation of the law.
Seminars should also by now be under way for judges on video technology and how its usefulness can be maximised in their work.
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