SPEECH AT THE LAUNCH OF VICTIMS AND WITNESS SUPPORT UNIT, 24 JUNE 2022

Good morning to all present.

May I adopt the protocol so ably set by  the President of the Labour Tribunal Mrs Quelch Missick.

May I express my appreciation for the honour of this invitation to give the keynote address on this august occasion which marks the birth of what was once a dream, and it is the idea that these islands would have a criminal justice system that would have due regard to the interests, welfare and proper treatment of victims and witnesses of criminal conduct.

I speak on behalf of the Criminal Justice Stakeholder Group known by its abbreviation CJSG, which has turned up to support the celebration of the birth of an initiative which will bring to these islands, needed reform to criminal justice, in accordance with international standards.

The CJSG lends its support by pledging its assistance to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions which has spearheaded this reform that will bring comfort and succor to persons who unfortunately, become the victims of criminal conduct, and persons who witness the commission of crimes.

While in modesty, the Office of the DPP describes this initiative as a CJSG programme, we in turn give due and proper recognition to the ODPP which has brought an idea discussed and voted on by our meeting of October 2020, into being and has made it the reality we celebrate today. We therefore wish to place on record that it has now become fully the initiative of the ODPP to which other members of CJSG lend our collective support, and pledge our assistance as necessary.

Because I speak as chair of the CJSG, may I be indulged for a few seconds to introduce the group to the people and residents of these islands.

The group exists to serve these islands by the delivery of criminal justice in a holistic manner, through the collaborative work of seven independent criminal justice institutions made up of the Judiciary, The Attorney General’s Chambers, The Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions; the Royal Turks and Caicos Islands Police Force, The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (formerly known as her Majesty’s Prison), The Department of Social Development, and the Bar Council. Our main goal is to ensure the safety of the residents of these islands.

It is in the spirit of this collaboration, that an idea regarding the proper and beneficial treatment of victims and witnesses of crime, seeded by CJSG, has been given life by one of our own: the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

It is that life we celebrate today.

Distinguished invited guests, I must place on record, that today, the criminal justice system in these islands has been given a new direction, a new purpose, and a new face. These new properties may be described in one word, and it is, empathy.

Today, the Criminal Justice Stakeholder Group is through the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, speaking with one voice, a voice of empathy; empathy to members of our society that have suffered and continue to suffer from the wrongs done to them by offenders who are tried before our courts for offences against the person, and their property.

We are saying, that we recognise that in our bid to try offences and punish crime as a wrong to society, we have used victims, and witnesses as mere appendages to the system of justice; as persons necessary to aid us in the performance of our duty, rather than persons who have suffered either as victims of, or witnesses to criminal conduct.

We recognise that while we have never doubted the indispensable role of victims and witnesses of crime to criminal justice, they have sadly,   been treated almost as an afterthought to a system carefully designed to satisfy the society’s sense of justice.

The Criminal Justice Stakeholder Group through the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions promises that with the recognition of these failings, and our collective will to reorient our focus and response to the commission of crime, we are today, entering a new day which should be to the benefit of the people and residents of these islands.

The new day is the launch of the Victims and Witness Support Unit (VWSU), an initiative now owned by the Director of Public Prosecutions, in whose office the Unit is housed, managed, resourced and operated.

To provide a bit of historical context, this effort to provide support to victims and witnesses of crime, began in 2020 with the discussion of a  paper at the October 2020 meeting of the Criminal Justice Stakeholder Group. The Paper was titled: “A Case for a CJSG Unit for Sexual, Child Victims and Other Vulnerable Witnesses”.

In that paper, this searching question was posed: “…in the pursuit of criminal justice, what is our collective goal as a society?” It received a decisive answer, which is: that our clear goal is to hold an offender accountable for their offences against a victim.

Through this answer, was born the collective will to reorient the focus of criminal justice, from just meting out punishment to the offender,  to doing so while having regard to the damage, loss, pain and suffering of the victim of crime, and also having regard to the convenience, and support of witnesses without whom we cannot carry out our criminal justice mandate. The Director of Public Prosecutions then (as it is said colloquially), stepped up to the plate, and promised the meeting that his office would translate that idea, now our will, into a Unit which would provide the necessary support to victims and witnesses.

This seemingly elementary proper response and treatment of criminal conduct has eluded many a system of criminal justice, ours included, until now. This is because in our shared goal of providing justice, we have ironically forgotten the human victims and witnesses to the crime. I use the word “Ironically” because in our effort to provide justice for the victim of crime, we have accorded importance to criminal acts by elevating the commission of crime to the status of a wrong against society. The society then becomes the victim, and the human victim becomes part of the vehicle by which the offender is punished. It is not surprising then that lost in translation somewhere is the impact suffered by the human victim which may be personal trauma, injury, damage or loss arising from the crime, and also the ordeal of witnesses who have to recollect and recount events best left forgotten, to the police and to the court. The irony is therefore, that the linchpin of our criminal justice system has been treated as the appendage.

It is small wonder then, that the criminal justice system which has admittedly been effective and stood the test of time, has nonetheless often left victims bitter, jaded, disillusioned, with their teeth set on edge.

The journey from a victim’s desire for closure, and the hope that their injury or loss will be addressed or acknowledged, to this dismal point, starts from the lack emphasis on the impact of the crime, and is completed when victims feel ignored, and witnesses feel unsupported and even on occasion, used.

I am certain that I echo the sentiments of many persons who have been victims or witnesses of criminal conduct in these islands; persons who have been bewildered that their feelings, distress or vulnerabilities have apparently been disregarded, as the officials they have dealt with have appeared to be only interested in their attendance at the police stations and at the court.

I am also sure that I have captured the angst of the police and prosecutors of crime, when after their best efforts following what is in the book to the letter, they are left with victims and witnesses, who in bitterness refuse to assist with the prosecution of a case.

This is the reason for this Unit which aims to address the concerns of victims and witnesses, and to include them in the process of attaining criminal justice by acknowledging their needs and providing psychological, emotional and/or social support to them.

When at its October 2020 meeting, the Director of Public Prosecutions graciously accepted to house the Victims and Witness’ Support Unit in his office, the CJSG was at once gratified and hopeful, that the idea would not remain a dream.

We were not wrong, and our confidence was not misplaced, for today,  just over one year and a half after the vote to solve that troubling circumstance, we are here at the launch by the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions of the Victims and Witnesses Support Unit.

This Unit will provide service to victims of crime, all crime, but particularly to victims with vulnerabilities such as children and victims of offences that violate the person, including sexual offences, as well as witnesses.

I must place on record, that from the date the learned Director of Public Prosecutions accepted to provide the service, he has been unwavering and unrelenting in the pursuit of that goal which has become the reality we celebrate today.

A lot has gone into this birthing process. The Office of the DPP researched throughout the common law world for best practices to be adopted in the new Unit. These include: the responsibilities of the Unit’s Officers to interview victims and witnesses, conduct needs assessment for victims and witnesses in cases going to trial,  provide them with information about the trial process, provide encouragement, and sometimes arrange counselling interventions where necessary.

After apprising themselves of these responsibilities, that office carefully provided for the necessary infrastructure and staffing to make the Unit operational. They have formed linkages to disseminate the information that there is now help for victims of crime, and finally, they have brought us to this point of launching the Unit, complete  with a Victim and Witness Support Charter to guide its work.

A strong framework has thus been put in place to ensure the success of the Unit and we look forward to its vibrant work to ensure a Turks and Caicos Islands’ criminal justice system that is both effective and humane.

I expect that as with any new work, as the programme is rolled out, kinks in the system will be discovered. I am in no doubt that these will be addressed with the dedication that has characterized the setting up of the Unit, until we have a victim and witness support system, that will adequately serve the needs of residents of these islands.

For myself and on behalf of the other members of the Criminal Justice Stakeholder Group, I thank our learned DPP, Mr Eugene Otuonye Queens Counsel, for accepting the challenge, taking ownership of the seed planted, and bringing it to life as a tree under which many, but especially the vulnerable, will find shelter and comfort.

We celebrate this achievement with the Office of the DPP, and we pledge our support as stakeholders to do whatever we may be called upon to do, to make the product of their efforts beneficial to these islands.

I am in no doubt that in the spirit of collaborative criminal justice, this Unit will work in tandem with the Restorative Justice Process which will  commence shortly, to provide victim-offender reconciliation in these islands as an extension to victim support.

With these interventions, the delivery of criminal justice in these islands is endeavouring to move towards its goal of safety and security for these islands where every person can dwell in peace and go about without fear.

Learned DPP and your office, please accept my, and the CJSG’s sincere congratulations on the launch of the Victims and Witness Support Unit of the Turks and Caicos Islands. We expect great things from this Unit, and we thank you.

 

M. AGYEMANG CJ

24/6/22