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OBA MP urges caution over discounted sentence policy

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The Sessions House in Hamilton houses The Supreme Court One.

The One Bermuda Alliance has warned that offering discounted prison sentences to people who plead guilty immediately for certain offences in the Supreme Court must be handled with care.

Scott Pearman, the Opposition’s legal affairs spokesman, said Tuesday’s Supreme Court announcement was “an interesting solution” to the backlog in the courts.

He said: “An early and unequivocal guilty plea by a defendant benefits society as whole, and our justice system in particular. Early admissions of guilt expedite a just outcome. Considerable time and cost will be saved.”

But he warned that it was not problem free.

“The court has said that any discount will only be considered for applicable cases where the Department of Public Prosecutions determines a reduced sentence appropriate,” he said.

“Discounts in sentencing will not be considered for more obvious offences: murder, sexual offences, firearm offences, pornography.

“But what other offences are appropriate for a reduced sentence?

Sometimes offences that may be perceived by some as ‘minor’ are nonetheless well deserving of condemnation. Offences by those in a position of trust, or by public officials, come to mind.“

Scott Pearman, Shadow Minister of Legal Affairs and Home Affairs, MP for constituency 22 (Photograph supplied)

Mr Pearman said there was also a risk that the discount might convert what should be a prison sentence into a non-custodial sentence.

He added: “Those who merit custodial sentences should get one. They should not escape custody merely because a discount is applied to unclog the system. We cannot be so busy that justice is not done.”

The Supreme Court announced on Tuesday that it would reduce custodial sentences by up to 30 per cent where the defendant entered an early guilty plea. The policy will not apply to the most serious indictable offences.

The upper court is experiencing a severe backlog of criminal cases as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Last August, the Chief Justice, Narinder Hargun, urged lawyers to ensure trials went ahead and criticised delays in legal aid applications and other adjournments.

Defence lawyers contacted by The Royal Gazette broadly supported the new policy as a means of clearing the backlog.

Mr Pearman said the OBA would support other measures to improve the courts, including appointing an acting Supreme Court judge.

He added: “If the problem is lack of revenue, the OBA has for several years been advocating that increased revenue should be generated by implementing a graduated fee structure in the Commercial Court, with court fees linked to the value of the claim. This has long been done in the UK and could easily be done here.

“To reiterate, it’s right that this backlog is being publicly recognised. And this solution is a bold step by the court. Particularly if guilty defendants are persuaded to make early and unequivocal admissions of guilt.

“However, we must be extremely careful that any sentencing discount does not excuse a custodial sentence when custody is deserved.

“It is a time-worn maxim of the courts: justice must not only be done, justice must be seen to be done.”