As part of its response to the high level of violent crime, the Ingraham administration is preparing to introduce in Parliament a bill to address the issue of bail, but Chief Justice Sir Michael Barnett has warned that judges will ignore any law that offends the constitution.
"I am aware that the government intends to table legislation in the upcoming weeks to deal with the criminal justice system -- that's what the minister of national security said -- but at the end of the day it must always be remembered that Parliament is not sovereign," Sir Michael told The Nassau Guardian.
"Parliament is not supreme. It is subject to the constitution and whatever laws they pass must be able to pass constitutional muster. They can not infringe on those rights guaranteed by the constitution which we as the members of the judiciary are sworn to uphold." In its Speech from the Throne read by the governor general last year, the government said, "A number of persons, who commit crimes, do so whilst on bail pending trial for other offenses.
"An amendment to the Bail Act will be placed before you to further restrict the right to bail for persons charged with serious crimes, and to limit the circumstances under which bail may be granted."
The Bail Bill is one of several the government has promised to introduce as part of its package of crime-fighting legislation. Bills to modernize the Penal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code are also expected. Sir Michael warned about the Bail Bill in an interview with The Nassau Guardian on Friday during which time he responded to criticisms Minister of National Security Tommy Turnquest made about judges.
Turnquest hit out at judges on Thursday, suggesting that some of them are too lenient in granting bail to people charged with serious crimes like murder. He said if they were elected officials they would have been chased out of town. At last report, more than 100 suspects charged with murder were on bail. So far for this year, 103 murders have been recorded.
With a rising number of murder cases, the Office of the Attorney General is finding it increasingly difficult to prosecute these matters quickly, The Nassau Guardian understands.
The Guardian on Saturday reported extensively on Sir Michael's rebuke of Turnquest's comments, which the minister made at a Rotary club meeting.
But he said much more. "There's a reason judges have been given constitutional tenure, to insulate them against capricious behavior," Sir Michael said in that interview at his office downtown. "We are there because it's important that judges be given the security and independence to do their work as they understand the law to be." Sir Michael said everybody must be frustrated by the high level of crime and judges are not insensitive to that. "And I think anyone would be naive to believe that there's any one reason that causes the problems that we've had," he said.
"The problems that we've had have been developing over the years and the solution is not obvious. The solution is not so simple. If it was I think the problems would have been solved not only in The Bahamas but the rest of the world a long time ago. "The problems are complex. There are many participants in the detection, apprehension and successful prosecution [of a suspect]...There are challenges. There are challenges for everybody."
Sir Michael spoke with The Nassau Guardian just before having a meeting with Supreme Court judges to discuss challenges they face and solutions to make the judicial system more efficient.
"I believe that with the additional courts and with additional judges -- I do believe we are looking for persons to serve on the bench particularly those persons capable of presiding over criminal trials," he told The Guardian. "If we can have six courts in New Providence operating simultaneously, presiding over criminal trials, that would be better than having four courts as presently exist. It's good that we have the court in Grand Bahama presiding over criminal trials year round."
Asked what he though of Minister Turnquest's public criticism of judges, Sir Michael said, "I don't know why people do the things that they do and why people say the things that they say.
"All I can say is that while I respect their right to articulate their views, one must be careful in attacking the judiciary to undermine the public confidence in the judiciary.
"You must be careful that when you speak that you are familiar with matters that are before the courts and we are always sensitive to the balancing act that judges must play. "And that balancing act is not simply the needs of the society. It is also the rights of persons accused of offenses. We don't have the ability to ride roughshod on those rights and we also have to guard against abuse by persons who are able to abuse. "We do still have proof of guilt at a certain standard in order to deprive a person of their liberty."
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