Prominent defence attorney-at-law Christopher Townsend has a scathing assessment of how the Bail Act is administered in the country’s courts.
“The way how bail is being dealt with by the judges is certainly, from my perspective, not what was contemplated by the Bail Act. Bail is looked upon in some quarters are pre-punishment before the trial, (and) some of the conditions put in place are onerous and not designed for that kind of offence.”
Townsend, in an interview with Loop News, pointed to the stipulation of surrendering of travel documents as producing an unnecessary administrative headache for court administrators.
“The routine requirement for the surrender of travel documents etc, that is not the business of the court. The court ought to be settled that they will return, they have proper surety. We live on an island, and therefore, the likelihood of someone running off if they so desire, is light. The requirement for passports and stop orders at airports for minor offences is really nonsense… the reporting to police stations for minor offences, petty offences and white collar offences, is nonsense,” said Townsend.
He also expressed the belief that in most cases, judges are reluctant to grant bail once the crown (prosecution) opposes the granting of bail.
“Once the crown opposes bail, then that’s it, you’re not getting bail. If the crown doesn’t oppose bail, then you stand an excellent chance of getting bail, and that’s fine.
“But sometimes the crown opposes bail for the most ridiculous of things. Oftentimes, they are not ministers of justice (fostering justice and not just prosecution), perhaps because of youthful exuberance, or because they have their own biases,” said Townsend.
He added that prosecutors generally appear to have a “warped and skewed” sense of justice.
“Because of their fear of the crime situation, they oppose bail despite the nature of obligation, they don’t have an objective approach to justice,” he opined.
But Queen’s Counsel and well-known defence attorney-at-law, Peter Champagne, expressed few reservations about the Bail Act in a separate interview with Loop News.
Instead, he believes that a litany of factors including administrative weakness in the processing of bail, clumsy police investigations and tardiness of police officers in appearing in court, seemingly conspire to make the bail process in the local courts fraught with challenges.
“The only issue I have with the Bail Act is that how it is structured, it allows for a lot of abuse in terms of the administrative process towards bail,” said Champagne.
Peter Champagnie QC
He gave an example to drive home his point.
“If I have a relative in Denham Town who wants to be bailed and say they have shared light (electricity supply), or don’t have any light, people remain in custody for a long time. The rich man, or the man above Half-Way Tree, it is easier to get bail, administratively speaking. From an administrative point of view, the processing of the bail is easier for those persons than for those below Half-Way Tree, and I have a problem with that,” he said.
Champagne has been a staunch advocate for reform in the administrative process involved in the granting of bail and the taking up of the offers.
“Jamaicans to a large extent, are insensitive to this because once someone is locked up ,’dem a criminal’, they must stay locked up.
“But say you have someone who is innocent, the allegations are weak, and the judge offers bail, but the accused lives in Islington, St Mary. Once the judge imposes a stop order and orders that the accused should surrender his passport, then relatives have to journey from Islington to Kingston to go to the Passport Office to carry a letter to get a stop order, and then carry it back to the court. This lends itself to administrative flaws and blunders and corruption,” cited Champagne.
But despite his reservations about such administrative flaws, Champagne said the Bail Act itself is balanced, and said it is as favourable to the defence as it is to the prosecution.
He gave an example of his perspective:
“There is a provision that says that the judge, in granting or refusing bail, can take into account any other factors that are important and (are) not listed as a condition to be considered. There are many other things which are available, and it is not just restricted to whether the person is a flight risk, or whether the person has a record’. So sometimes a judge may say, ‘Mr Champagne, I hear you; he is not a flight risk because he has a fixed place of abode; yes, he has a good record; and yes, he turned himself over to the police, but he resides within close proximity to the complainant and I have concerns, so therefore, I am not granting bail’.
“The Bail Act is fair for both sides, because it allows a judge to take into account other matters (than those that are listed as matters for consideration),” he stressed.