Parliament sitting postponed; pundits speculate that new amendment to Criminal Prosecutions bill might be the cause

The meeting of the House of Representatives that was scheduled for Thursday, May 11, has been pushed back to May 18.  Opposition Members say they were advised by email on Tuesday but that no reason for the postponement was given.

Parliament-watchers are speculating, however, that the delay might be on account of the Criminal Prosecutions Service Act, an amendment to which was pulled from the Order Paper by the minister of legal affairs at the last sitting.  However, the Bill is down for debate, once again.

This piece of legislation has been creating some chaos in the Magistrates’ Court, where a number of adjournments have been sought.  

This is to enable the prosecution to receive direction from the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and their superiors on the way forward.

This confusion came about after attorney Wendel Robinson filed a case of habeas corpus in the High Court on behalf of one of his clients.

Robinson put forward that the man was being held at His Majesty’s Prison illegally, since the Police no longer had authority to bring charges according to amendments to the Act made in 2017.

Under those amendments, which came into force in November 2021, the Police, who once prosecuted summary matters, were no longer allowed to do so.  Changes to the law made the Office of the DPP the principal prosecutorial agency in Antigua and Barbuda, and any prosecutions by the Police required its fiat.

Since the High Court upheld Robinson’s challenge, and it was proven that the Police did not have the prior written consent of the DPP, sources say that challenges to arrests, remands and prosecutions are being made and are creating a backlog in the system.

Now to address this mishap, Attorney-General Steadroy “Cutie” Benjamin is taking another amendment of the law to the Parliament.

Attorney Leon Chaku Symister says that Benjamin now wants Parliament to accept another section of the Criminal Prosecutions Service (Amendment) Bill, with the insertion of a new Section 27A.

In short, Symister says, the Government is seeking to validate all the breaches that took place between the time the Act came into force until the High Court’s recent ruling.

If the Bill passes – which it will, since the Government has the majority, albeit a slim one – Symister says that persons who were convicted under a procedure that was null and void and now wish to seek redress cannot do so.  

What the Browne Administration is trying to avoid, the attorney states, is a series of lawsuits.  However, he says, there is another way to address this situation, especially the indictable matters, instead of seeking, now, to make what was wrong right.

Reportedly, a discussion on this recent amendment was held with the Antigua and Barbuda Bar Association, and the body did not respond favourably, Symister says.