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Appeal judge calls for digital recording to speed up court cases

A Court of Appeal judge has called for digital recording in court cases to speed up proceedings.

Justice of Appeal Geoffrey Bell made the recommendation in a written judgment in the case of Kenneth Williams, who was convicted in Magistrates’ Court of a string of sex offences after a trial that lasted almost 21 months.

Jerome Lynch, Williams’ lawyer, argued that, because of delays in proceedings, the trial had become so fragmented it had prejudiced the defendant.

Justice of Appeal Bell agreed and ordered that the convictions be quashed.

He added that Magistrate Tyrone Chin had failed to manage the trial appropriately and had to take responsibility for many of the delays.

Justice of Appeal Bell said: “It is an obvious aspect of the fair trial principle that there can come a point at which a trial has become so piecemeal and fragmented by delays that it has to be condemned as an unfair trial.”

Justice of Appeal Bell highlighted in a written judgment that one of the reasons for the slow progress was the need for the magistrate to take extensive notes during witness testimony.

He said: “While the magistrate’s notes are clear and full, at the same time, one would expect that the trial would move relatively slowly with such a full handwritten note being taken.

“For instance, the notes typically record both question and answer, rather than combining the two, to reflect the question in the witness’s answer.

“It is incumbent on the judicial system in Bermuda so to organise its resources as to ensure that the reasonable time requirement is honoured.”

Justice of Appeal Bell said: “I should add that one step which might perhaps be taken with a view to achieving this would be to install a digitally based system of recording which could produce transcripts at greater speed and less expense than provided by the current system, which leaves the judge or magistrate having to take a detailed note that inevitably slows down the judicial process to a crawl.

“It does not need to be so.”

Mr Williams was convicted on nine counts involving a child under the age of 14 in May last year.

The trial started in August, 2017.

Justice of Appeal Bell said: “I do recognise that magistrates rely upon counsel to provide an accurate estimate of the likely length of trial.

“But the onus is on the magistrate to fix dates that enable a trial to be concluded without excessive delays, such as occurred in this case.

Justice of Appeal Bell also criticised Mr Chin for failing to set aside enough time for the case to be heard in a continuous sitting.

Mr Williams’ trial was held over 50 court sessions.

Justice of Appeal Bell said: “The magistrate had expressed his concern at the delay in bringing matters to a conclusion, yet was not able to manage the case so as to achieve that.

“At some stage, the magistrate needed to ensure that a sufficiently substantial period of time was set aside so as to enable the case to be taken through to its conclusion

“Expressions of concern at the delay on the magistrate’s part achieved nothing in the absence of effective case management.”

Justice of Appeal Bell dismissed suggestions that defence lawyers at the trial had caused delays by excessive cross-examination of prosecution witnesses and submitting a call for the magistrate to stand down.

But he said: “By reason of the numerous interruptions and delays, the whole process amounted to a miscarriage of justice.

“In saying that, I appreciate that the magistrate did express concern at the slow pace of the trial. But it was up to him to do something about it, for instance by acceding to counsel’s request – when it was apparent that the trial was moving far too slowly – that a sufficient block of time should be reserved to enable the trial to be completed without any further delay.

“That request was made in January 2018, after the trial had been under way for almost five months, but unfortunately it fell on deaf ears, such that another sixteen months passed before judgment was given.

“But separate and apart from that, the need to avoid a long hearing becoming fragmented by multiple sittings over months and years is paramount and it is the task of the magistrate to ensure that the reasonable time requirement is indeed honoured in this jurisdiction.”

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