Attorney General Defends Criminal Procedure Act 2024 Amidst Public Outcry Over Jury System Abolition

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By Amin Kef (Ranger)

In a fervent appeal to President Julius Maada Bio, Leon Jenkins-Johnston, Esq., former Ombudsman of the Republic of Sierra Leone, has voiced strong opposition to the recently passed Criminal Procedure Act 2024, which eliminates the right to trial by jury. Jenkins-Johnston emphasized the constitutional significance of jury trials, citing historical and legal precedents to support his plea.

Drawing from the legacy of the late J.B. Jenkins-Johnston, Jenkins-Johnston highlighted a 14-year-old article by the esteemed jurist, underscoring the importance of jury trials in maintaining justice and liberty. He expressed shock and dismay at the Parliament’s decision, noting that the initial draft of the bill included provisions for jury trials, which were subsequently removed.

“The removal of jury trials is a dangerous move that undermines the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution of Sierra Leone,” said Jenkins-Johnston. He referenced Blackstone’s Commentaries, emphasizing that trial by jury is a cornerstone of English law and a vital privilege for citizens.

The passage of the Criminal Procedure Act 2024 by a vote of 65 to 38 has sparked widespread concern about the future of the criminal justice system in Sierra Leone. Legal experts and concerned citizens have called on President Bio to withhold his assent to the bill and send it back to Parliament for reconsideration.

Morison Siaffa Gbaya, Esq., in a recent article, also expressed dissatisfaction with the abolition of the jury system. He pointed out that while jury trials are a hallmark of the English legal tradition, many countries with robust legal systems do not practice jury trials. Morison Gbaya argued that the jury system’s abolition should be carefully evaluated, considering both global practices and local realities.

Jenkins-Johnston echoed these sentiments, urging President Bio to protect his legacy and democratic credentials by rejecting the bill in its current form. “We plead with you, Your Excellency, to defend the Constitution and the rights of our citizens,” he implored.

As the debate continues, legal scholars and civil society organizations are calling for comprehensive law reform and public engagement to ensure that the criminal justice system in Sierra Leone remains fair and just. The decision now rests with President Bio, who is urged to act in the best interests of the nation and its people.

It could be recalled that, in a historic decision, Parliament has recently unanimously voted to pass the “Criminal Procedure Act, 2024” into law. This significant legislation marks a major milestone in Sierra Leone’s justice delivery process, according to the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Mohamed-Lamin Tarawalley.

The new Act will repeal and replace the Criminal Procedure Act of 1965, a move that has been over 20 years in the making. Efforts to review, repeal and replace the outdated 1965 Act have spanned more than two decades, culminating in this pivotal moment.

The Attorney General highlighted that this achievement aligns with President Dr. Julius Maada Bio’s manifesto promise and the performance contract signed by the Attorney General and Minister of Justice. The Attorney General’s office set a timeline for this legislative overhaul, and through dedicated leadership, has successfully delivered on this commitment.

Morison Siaffa Gbaya, Esq., detailed the complexities of the jury system’s abolition, noting that while the jury system is practiced in many countries, it is not universal. He emphasized that the jury system’s decline in many parts of the world demonstrates that it is not the sole path to justice. Countries with the civil law tradition, including many in Europe, Latin America, and Asia do not universally practice jury trials, yet they maintain robust legal systems.

Furthermore, he highlighted that some common law countries have also abandoned the jury system due to judicial and public dissatisfaction, including Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa, and India. He also argued that the focus should be on adopting models that fit Sierra Leone’s unique socio-economic, cultural, and political realities.

The crux of the debate centers on whether the abolition of the jury system meets the threshold of judicial and public dissatisfaction. If not, Morison Gbaya urges civil society organizations and legal experts to lobby the Presidency to withhold assent until Parliament reconsiders its stance on the jury system. He advocates for a reformed jury system adapted to Sierra Leone’s domestic realities, rather than its outright abolition.

In conclusion, the Criminal Procedure Act 2024 has sparked a significant debate about the future of justice in Sierra Leone. While some view it as a necessary modernization of an outdated system, others see it as a threat to fundamental rights. The ultimate decision now lies with President Bio, whose action will shape the trajectory of Sierra Leone’s criminal justice system.


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