The Fiji Law Society has written to the Attorney General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum and all parliamentarians to express their deep concern at the Government’s stated intention to use the expedited parliamentary procedure to debate two bills dealing with an Anti-Corruption Division in the courts and the removal of the assessor system in High Court trials.
The Law Society has called on Sayed-Khaiyum and other parliamentarians in an open letter to defer debate on these two bills this week and instead to ensure that the proposed laws are dealt with in accordance with Chapter 7 of the Standing Orders.
It says this will allow a proper public consultation process to take place that ensures thorough consideration of each of the bills.
The Law Society says the proposed changes are fundamental to human rights.
It says the proposal to create a “specialised” division of the High Court to consider corruption cases needs careful review.
The lawyers say the notion that only specialist judges are competent to preside over corruption cases is open to challenge.
The Law Society says corruption is a criminal offence, and Judges and Magistrates are by definition learned in the law, including criminal law.
However, it says a diverse bench, offering different perspectives and viewpoints, is an important strength in criminal justice.
The Law Society says certainly there are other more serious and pressing priorities within the justice system that warrant attention: a sexual offences and child protection division is a more pressing priority than anti-corruption.
It also says the bill dealing with the Abolition of Assessors represents a profound change in and the dismantling of a key part of the administration of criminal justice in Fiji.
The Law Society says assessors have played a critical part in High Court criminal trials for over 120 years and they are fundamental protection of an accused person’s right to a fair trial.
It says the bedrock of our criminal justice system is that an accused person’s guilt or innocence is determined (or opined upon in Fiji’s case) by his or her peers, by members of the community.
The Law Society says this is a tradition we share with nearly all other common law countries (including Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, who use the jury system in the same manner).
The lawyers say assessor participation sustains public confidence in our judicial system because it provides transparency.
The Society says removing public participation from criminal justice will reduce transparency and erode public confidence, and leaving the question of guilt or innocence in serious cases to a single judge, without an accused having a choice in the matter, is neither fair nor just.
They say they also strongly oppose dealing with both bills under Order 51 of the Parliamentary Standing Orders as there is nothing urgent raised in either of them.
The Law Society says these bills should not be passed in this session of Parliament.
We have sought a response from Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum. He is yet to respond.
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