(Second Article in a Series)
By Dr. Lawrence A. Joseph
Magistrates in their courts are charged with a very serious responsibility of making determinations on summary legal issues which come before them. In making these determinations, they are compelled to give due consideration to both the facts of the case in question and the related law. For example, if someone is charged for causing annoyance to someone else under section 6 or section 16 of the recently passed Electronic Crimes Act of 2013, it is the duty of the magistrate to give consideration to whether in fact the defendant posted an electronic statement about the victim, whether the defendant had any lawful excuse or justification for posting the electronic message in question and whether it is reasonable for the alleged victim to become annoyed by the statement.
If there is justification for the making of a particular statement by the defendant, then the magistrate may well have no option but to dismiss the case in his favour. If, under the circumstances, it appears that it was not reasonable for the victim to become annoyed then a similar outcome may ensue. If however the defendant is found guilty, then he or she may be fined up to one hundred thousand dollars and/or be imprisoned for up to one year under section 6 or up to three years under section 16.
Magistrates and magistrates’ courts in Grenada obtain their authority from the Magistrates Act, Chapter 177 of the Laws of Grenada. The courts are distributed amongst five districts: the Southern Magisterial District comprising three courts in the parish of Saint George; the Eastern Magisterial District comprising one court each in the parishes of Saint Andrew and Saint David; the Western Magisterial District comprising one court each in the parishes of Saint Patrick, Saint Mark and Saint John; and the Northern Magisterial District comprising a Court in Carriacou. The choice of district for the determination of matters depends on the following: where the plaintiff or defendant resides; where the cause of action has arisen either wholly or in part; and, where the chattel or thing which is the subject of the action is located. A magistrate may refuse to hear a matter if it is not properly brought within his or her court.
Magistrates’ courts are mainly responsible for trying summary criminal offences and minor civil matters. In general, these courts do not have the authority to determine cases where title to land is in dispute. Summary criminal offences are minor crimes, such as minor assault, obscene language and stealing. Minor civil matters include breaches of contract which do not give rise to claims for more than ten thousand dollars and tortious claims such as damage to property or slander where the claim for damages is not more than seven thousand five hundred dollars.
Section 51 of the Magistrates Act obliges all magistrates to regularly submit a complete list of all criminal cases which have been determined by them to the Chief Justice. Upon examination of these lists, the Chief Justice using his own discretion, may reverse or amend any of the decisions of the magistrates in favour of the convicted person. A convicted person may also appeal to the Court of Appeal against decisions of magistrates.
Magistrates’ courts have the added responsibility of conducting preliminary inquiries into indictable criminal offences. An indictable offence is a very serious offence such as murder, grievous bodily harm and robbery and they carry very heavy prison sentences. In these cases, the duty of the magistrate is merely to determine whether there is a case for the defendant to answer, and if so, the matter is sent to the High Court for trial before judge and jury; if not, then the matter would be dismissed. The magistrate cannot find a defendant guilty or not guilty in an indictable case.
Contrary to popular belief, a Juvenile and Family Court is operational in Grenada. Section 40 of the Magistrates Act permits magistrates to set aside special days in every month to hold sittings of this court. When hearing charges against children or young persons or when hearing applications relating to them, no person other than the magistrate and officers of the Court and the parties to the case, their lawyers and other persons directly connected with the case except by leave of the magistrate, would be allowed to attend. Bona fides newspaper representatives may also be allowed to attend, however, in a report on any of the court’s proceedings, they must not reveal the name, address or school or include any particulars calculated to lead to the identification of any child or young person concerned in the proceedings.
Based upon the above discussions, it may be concluded that magistrates’ courts play a very important role within the legal system here in Grenada.