The Chief Justice, Mrs Georgina Theodora Wood, has expressed concern over the inadequacies in the court system and its inability to dispose of criminal cases justly, particularly “the tortoise-paced rate” at which criminal cases were disposed of.
According to her, that situation, compounded by overcrowded prisons, was one of the factors crippling the criminal justice system in the country.
She, therefore, called for an overhaul of the criminal justice system in order to make it more effective to address current challenges.
The Chief Justice identified other challenges as the absence of comprehensive written sentencing policy guidelines as pertained in some jurisdictions and the paucity of non-custodial sentencing options.
“This may call for radical reforms, the redesigning of systems, structures, policies; attitudinal and paradigm mental shifts in the way we render justice and a shared passion and commitment to collaboratively work to build a well-functioning system,” she said in Accra last Tuesday.
Delivering the keynote address at the opening of the Criminal Justice Conference 2013, Mrs Justice Wood said it was worrying that in the 21st century, which had witnessed the emergence of some of the most highly sophisticated technological-based offences the world had ever known, such as cyber crime, identity theft, money laundering and terrorism financing, “we still are grappling with basic principles in criminal justice administration”.
She said if those critical deficiencies plaguing the criminal justice system were not addressed, they would lead to a gradual erosion of confidence in the criminal justice system.
The conference was organised by the British High Commission and attended by representatives of key stakeholders in law enforcement, including civil society organisations.
Justice Wood said as expected of the civil justice system, “a trustworthy criminal justice delivery system must be efficient, effective and fair”.
Disparity in sentences
She cited the huge disparity in sentences passed on various offenders as one of the complaints raised against the criminal justice system, adding that the main worry was over the long custodial sentences inflicted on first-time, young offenders.
“We perfunctorily dismiss them at our own peril, given that these are the early warning signs of gradual loss of public trust and confidence in the justice system. And the consequences of total public disaffection with any system are too well documented and known for me to recount at this forum,” she said.
The Chief Justice said as part of the radical reforms, “we may propose a modernisation of the system with a view to making it more responsive to the needs of society as a whole”.
She added that there would be the need to re-examine the Criminal and Other Offences (Procedure) Act, 1960 (Act 30), look at what amendments were needed for achieving national goals and whether, in the past, the nation had, deservedly, given due attention to the provisions relative to the payment of compensation or restitution of property, “bearing in mind that Section 35 of the Courts Act, 1993 (Act 459) deals with restitution, reparation or compensation where an economic loss or damage is caused to the state or state agency”.
Dealing with excesses
Mrs Justice Wood said in order to check those excesses, circuit court judges and magistrates were mandatorily required to send monthly reports on persons on remand to the office of the Chief Justice.
She indicated that that measure had assisted the Justices of the Court of Appeal with oversight responsibility over the criminal justices system to track remand prisoners and intervene appropriately within legitimate bounds.
“Under this case management activity, recently an accused person who has been in custody for nearly 13 years on a charge of murder in which the facts, as tendered by the prosecution, clearly at best demonstrated a case of manslaughter, was discharged by the presiding magistrate when the police prosecutor went to court to sing the same song, namely, ‘that they are waiting for the Attorney-General’s advice’,” she remarked.
“It is a blot on our collective conscience that some persons remanded in custody on application by state prosecutors are sometimes forgotten and kept perpetually in custody on expired warrants,” she added.
To cut down on the delays in the speedy adjudication of criminal cases, Mrs Justice Wood proposed the feasibility of the Ghana Police Service setting up dedicated corps of in-house lawyers in every regional capital whose duty, inter alia, would be to study and advise on the dockets that were routinely sent to the Attorney- General’s Department for legal advice.