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Rules and Amendments to the Criminal Procedure Act and the Access to Justice Bureau are expected to bring improvement to SKN Justice System

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by Eulana Weekes

St. Kitts and Nevis (WINN): The government of St. Kitts and Nevis is working on a project to remove the barriers to a more effective criminal justice system in the country. Despite some improvement in the system, there is still a major concern whereby victims and defendants are left waiting months before their matters are heard in court.

Speaking at the Prime Minister’s Monthly Press Conference on Thursday, May 18, 2023, Attorney General and Minister of Justice and Legal Affairs in the Government of St. Kitts and Nevis, Hon Garth Wilkin, disclosed that the Government is working on a solution to address the delay in court trials.

“In relation to the justice committee, which is made up of the criminal judges, criminal magistrates, the Bar Association, members of the police force and persons from our office (Attorney General’s Office), we are seeking to soon to present to parliament, a solution to the delays in criminal matters being heard. What has happened in the recent past is that persons have been waiting for trial for as long as, maybe, seven years. Sometimes they have been waiting for even longer for appeals, and these persons sometimes are not on bail, and what has happened is millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money has been paid out to persons who potentially have been in prison for a long time and their matter is either discontinued or otherwise, they have a very good lawyer…and they then are paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars. That is not sustainable, and the solution is to ensure that there is swift justice.”

AG. Wilkin said an Act had been drafted and will be discussed in an upcoming Justice Committee Meeting. The Act is geared toward ensuring swift access to justice.

“Fortunately, we have a draft criminal procedure- Rules and Amendments to the Criminal Procedure Act, which we are going to discuss in our next Justice Committee Meeting, which I believe will be the first or second week of June; so hopefully, by September the new criminal procedures would be in place. As I said, the judges are a very integral part of that process, so that we can ensure that, like, for example, in Montserrat, where a person was charged at the end of September, and their trial was in the first week of November. I cannot promise that we will get it done so swiftly. So, we’re going to aim for less than six months so that people can receive justice in a swift time. That is the fearest solution for our society and for our people. People are innocent until proven guilty, and we have to ensure that we’re able to be brought before the courts and get justice in swift time. So, we’re working very diligently and hard on that.”

Several factors may contribute to the delay in cases. The Lawyers may have multiple matters around the same time, the court may be waiting on disclosure from the prosecution, or the defendant may be seeking a lawyer, amongst other things.

Meanwhile, the Minister of Justice and Legal Affairs notified the public of another justice reform mechanism, the Access to Justice Bureau, which will shortly be activated. “It will consist of three arms,” he said, The Legal Aid Clinic, The Public Defender’s Office and The Alternative Dispute Resolution and Restorative Justice Arm.

“I am pleased to report that the Access to Justice Bureau, which I spoke about in December during the Budget Debate, is finally coming to fruition. It is going to have three arms. The Legal Aid Clinic, where persons who cannot afford commercial lawyer rates can attend and receive top-class service for civil matters, including the family court as well as in the Civil Court. Then the lawyers in the Clinic will then be going to the various community Centres, not just waiting for the persons to come on West Square Street, but going out in the communities and providing free legal advice to persons when they have [disputes].

The other arm will be the Public Defender’s Office. This is the Office where the Government is going to pay for Lawyers to be able to defend persons charged with criminal offences at very low fees. So instead of persons being assigned solely by the court, there will be lawyers who are actually engaged by the Government, sitting in an office, for persons who cannot afford to pay for Senior lawyers to defend them. That is something that has worked throughout the Commonwealth, and we’re introducing it to St. Kitts and Nevis, where everybody, no matter their income level, they can feel that they get justice and proper representation.”

The third arm; I am pleased to inform the general public. [It] will be the Alternative Dispute Resolution and Restorative Justice Arm of the Access to Justice Bureau. That would be if anybody has any dispute in our society, whether it be domestic, whether it be with your neighbour, whether it be with somebody you gave a loan to, instead of going to court, you would be able to go to a trained mediator and sit down and try to resolve your dispute amicably. The mediator also will be going to the community centres to introduce that mediation process to the community.

On the Prime Minister’s Instructions, that Division will also deal with Restorative Justice. Restorative Justice is when people who are victims of crime can then interact with potential persons who caused the crime or did them harm, and they can try to find a solution where both of them can continue with their lives.”

According to Wilkin, the aim is to develop a mediation culture in St. Kitts and Nevis, where individuals learn to resolve issues amicably and move on after a dispute or crime is committed.

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