Access to justice: the enabler of human rights in the Caribbean

Posted December 15, 2021

In Trinidad and Tobago, on Tuesday 26 May 2020, a verdict of not guilty on a charge of murder was delivered to Quincy Martinez. This was a notable event for three reasons:

1)     Mr. Martinez had been incarcerated on remand (and therefore presumed innocent) awaiting trial for 12 years.

2)     It was the first Judge Alone Trial in the history of the country. (the Caribbean Common Law system traditionally relying on jury trials), following the passing of the Miscellaneous Provisions (Trial by Judge Alone) Act, 2017 which came into force on February 1st, 2019.

3)     The three-day trial took place within the context of COVID19 and allowed the court to embrace video conferencing which sped up the judicial process.

What are the challenges to Criminal Justice in the Caribbean?

The case above illustrates not just the extent of the problems facing the criminal justice system in the English-speaking Caribbean but also how these problems can be addressed. Between 2019 and 2020, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) conducted a Needs Assessment of the Administration of Justice in nine Caribbean Countries (NAR).

The report concluded that the backlog of cases – particu­larly in the criminal division – is one of the most challenging issues. Among other factors such as lack of human and technological resources, the consensus of stakeholders was that there is over-use of pre-trial detention because of an absence of alternative pre-trial options, causing not only a slow judiciary system but, most importantly, due process violations, which needed to be addressed urgently. Four out of ten people are imprisoned without a conviction in Latin America and the Caribbean and the excessive use of pre-trial detention or a slow resolution of a person's legal situation undermine the presumption of innocence, can encourage corruption, and can also promote criminality.

The COVID 19 pandemic exacerbated some of the existing weaknesses of the Caribbean judicial systems. However, the pandemic has also seen a more rapid transition to digital solutions and decentralized services such as the use of remote technology for legal proceedings, including remote bail hearings for the incarcerated, prison decongestion strategies, measures reducing pretrial detention, online dispute resolution, and access to virtual legal aid providers.

The scope of the challenges

The extent and scale of the backlog of cases in the criminal justice system in the Caribbean, which varies across jurisdictions, can be illustrated in several ways. In 2019, the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court[6], which serves as both High Court of Justice and Court of Appeal for six independent Caribbean States and three British Overseas Territories, recorded in its 2019-2020 Annual Report that only 17.40 percent of cases disposed of were criminal cases. While there are already steps being taken to reduce the backlog of criminal cases, the rate is slow since only a small proportion of the accumulation of cases were being addressed.

Table 1: Cases filed and disposed by major case type in the High Courts: 2019

For example, In Belize according to an official memorandum from the General Civil Registry Department, in 2021 there were 487 Criminal matters listed before the Belize Supreme Court, one-third of which have been active for at least four years.

Table 2: Year of indictment for the criminal case and the number of matters which are active within that period in Belize.

While In Trinidad and Tobago the story is not different a very small percentage of criminal matters are disposed in each law term and most pending matters have been so for 6 to 10 years, with several pending for 11 to 14 years, and others for 15 to 20 years.

UNDP`s support to criminal justice reform

Guided by a human rights-based approach to addressing these access challenges, UNDP offers a prevention perspective on criminal justice reform as well as practical tools to bring that about. These include: 

·       The deployment of cost-effective and scalable technology to improve the efficiency of both national and regional justice administration.

·       Training, capacity building, and facilitation to ensure effective mainstreaming of the new technologies and to enable them to respond to long-standing criminal justice issues (such as backlogs and bottlenecks in the system) and emerging challenges (such as those presented by the pandemic); and support to strengthen national and regional processes and procedures to fill the gaps in rules and procedures identified in the NAR.

The goal is to deliver on the UNDP’s people-centered approach to leaving no one behind by reducing 12-year remand incarceration into a three-day trial process.