Criminal Case Management - New wine in old vessel
One of the legacies of Chief Justice Zaila McCalla's reign will be the implementation of criminal case management in our courts. The object of criminal case management is to have a judge-driven process to ensure that pre-trial issues are dealt with effectively, thus resulting in an expeditious and fair trial.
The rules governing case management in criminal cases were gazetted in 2011 as the Judicature (Case Management in Criminal Cases) Rules, 2011. Essentially, the rules impose a duty on judges to actively manage each case so that there can be early detection of the real issues, to determine the need for witnesses, to decide who must do what to ensure the progress of the case, to decide how to manage the progress and compliance with directions, to discourage delay and to encourage participation and the use of technology to advance the progress of the case.
To ensure effective management and compliance, the court is empowered by the rules to nominate a judge to conduct case management. Parties are also required to actively assist in complying with the directives to ensure the progress of the case, which is to be done through the selection by them of a case progression officer. The duties of a case progression officer include monitoring the compliance directions given by the judge and to inform the court of anything that may affect the progress of the case. He or she (or someone acting on his or her behalf when necessary) is to also be available for consultation about the case.
To facilitate the process, the court system has set up court sessions for what is called the plea and case management hearing. In these sessions, the defendant is pleaded formally. If he pleads guilty, that would be the end of the process except for sentencing. Further case management is not really required, except for orders as to pre-sentencing reports, if necessary.
On the other hand, if the defendant pleads not guilty, then active case management is required. The court must now give directions which are considered necessary for the attainment of an expeditious and fair trial. This will result in the setting of a timetable for the progress of the case. At trial, each party is to be ready for trial, comply with all directions, ensure that the witnesses are present, ensure readiness to present written or other material and be ready to promptly inform the court of anything that is likely to affect the progress of the trial.
On the face of it, criminal case management is a welcome change to an archaic judicial system that is bursting at its seams for decades. It is, indeed, a laudable effort but at the same time, it is like pouring new wine in an old vessel. In order for its real value to be fully realised, it must be accompanied by other profound reforms of the justice system and a change in the culture of criminal litigation.
The initiative should be backed by relevant legislative measures geared at achieving procedural efficiency, and also by the effective use of sanctions to promote a culture of compliance and alacrity.
It should also be supported by the availability of more spacious and modern courthouses, with better parking and public facilities and easier access to the buildings. Furthermore, additional and better-paid staff, supported by adequate modern technology, must be in place.
Despite the many challenges, we can only continue to hope that case management in criminal cases will bring about the well-needed change in the rate of disposal of criminal cases in our over-burdened court system.