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The Islander Newspaper Ascension Island
  Issue No. 2227 Online Edition Tuesday 2 September 2014 
Home | January 2012 Please tell us what you think of this article. Tell a friend Print Friendly

Ascension : THE COURTS AND HOW THEY WORK
Submitted by The Islander (Islander Editors) 19.01.2012 (Article Archived on 02.02.2012)

The administration of justice is a key element to any society. This article is intended to explain the structure of the Courts, and how they function both on St Helena and Ascension Island.

The administration of justice is a key element to any society.   This article is intended to explain the structure of the Courts, and how they function both on St Helena and Ascension Island.

 

Supreme Court

 

The Supreme Court is presided over by the Chief Justice.   It tries the most serious of criminal offences; and civil claims where the amount in issue exceeds £2500.00       or where an important point of law or principle is involved; and all divorce cases.   Where in any criminal case the Defendant pleads not guilty then the case is either tried by the Chief Justice alone (at the election of the Defendant) or by the Chief Justice sitting with a jury of eight.   In addition the Supreme Court hears all appeals from the Magistrates Court in both civil and criminal cases.

 

In reality and so far as Ascension Island is concerned the Supreme Court hears very few cases.   In the last two years the Supreme Court has heard one criminal trial on Ascension, one criminal appeal from the Ascension Magistrates Court, one civil claim and a handful of divorce cases.  So far as St Helena is concerned the Supreme Court has been more active but it is gratifying to note that on St Helena, too, serious criminal offences remain comparatively few.

 

Magistrates Court

 

It is the Magistrates Courts, both on St Helena and Ascension Island, which hear and decide the overwhelming majority of cases which arise in any given year.   On St Helena it is something in the region of 90% of all cases; on Ascension Island in excess of 95% of all cases.   In addition on St Helena it is the Magistrates Court which hears all applications for licences under the licensing laws.

 

It is difficult to overstate the importance of the Magistrates Court both on St Helena and on Ascension Island in terms of the role they play in the administration of justice.   Magistrates are the glue by which the cohesiveness of the communities are bound.   To be a Magistrate carries with it a considerable burden of responsibility.   The successful discharge of the office of Magistrate requires courtesy, patience, fairness but above all the ability at all times to remain objective, impartial, and independent.   Frequently the correct decision to take in any case may be a difficult one.   For those with the right qualities, however, it is capable of being an enormously fulfilling role.

 

All Magistrates, both on St Helena and on Ascension Island are volunteers.   A modest emolument is paid to the Magistrates on St Helena for each day they sit as Magistrates.

 

Magistrates perform a vital function.  They deserve the support and respect of the communities they serve.

 

Public Solicitor

 

Outside of the Attorney General’s Chambers the Public Solicitor is the only qualified practicing lawyer on St Helena.   On St Helena she is available, if instructed, to represent those charged with criminal offences and those involved in litigation against the Government.   In disputes between private individuals the Public Solicitor will not generally act for one side or the other; but is available to advise the Lay Advocates instructed on procedural matters; and if asked by all parties will act as an unofficial but impartial mediator.   There is no equivalent office on Ascension Island although the Public Solicitor on St Helena visits Ascension occasionally and is available to advise the Lay Advocates on Ascension by telephone.

 

Lay Advocates

 

The Lay Advocacy is a rarity in the context of a formal legal system and indeed is perhaps unique to St Helena and to Ascension Island.

 

Lay Advocates have recognised rights of audience both in the Magistrates Court and in the Supreme Court.   They are volunteers with, as the name suggests, no formal legal background training or qualification.   Experience shows however that what Lay Advocates lack in formal legal qualification is amply compensated for in their intimate knowledge of the communities in which they live, and the trust reposed in them by those they represent.

 

The demands made of a Lay Advocate may be considerable.   Any case, whether it comes before a Court or not, requires preparation.  A Lay Advocate may be asked to represent someone whose cause is controversial or unpopular.   In those circumstances the Lay Advocate may be asked “How can you possibly represent so and so?”.   It is a question asked of trained lawyers throughout the world.   The answer is quite simple: anyone who appears before a court ought to have the right to be represented whatever the reason they are there for.   To deny that right is to undermine the very fabric of the legal system.   To recognise that right however requires that Advocates, Lay or otherwise, are available to represent without fear of criticism.

 

Lay Advocates perform a two-fold role.   They are available to represent those who require representation.   They also ensure that access to justice on St Helena and Ascension is available to all.   Because they are volunteers they do not charge for their services, although on St Helena a small emolument is paid to them by the Government.   No one therefore should be denied justice solely because the cost of seeking justice is too high.

 

Lay Advocates provide a remarkable service.   It also can be an enormously rewarding role.   In the same way as the Magistrates the Lay Advocates too are deserving of the support and respect of the communities they serve.

 

 St Helena and Ascension both require additional Magistrates and Lay Advocates.  Unless new recruits can be found for both there is a real danger that, in time, the unique legal system that we enjoy in these communities will wither and die.  If that happens then there is a very real possibility that the principle of access to justice for all will severely be weakened, which would be a tragedy.  As I have already said,  it is a system that depends on volunteers.  Anyone, whether St Helenian or not, is eligible to apply to become a Magistrate or Lay Advocate.  For those who might be interested in applying to become Magistrates it is important to demonstate that your employment is sufficiently independent of Government.  If you feel that you possess the qualities to be a Lay Advocate or a Magistrate then I would urge you to step forward.  Those interested in the Magistracy should contact the Judicial Services Commission through Ms Yvonne Williams on St Helena and Ms Marion Leo on Ascension.  Those interested in the Lay Advocacy should contact the Public Solicitor on St Helena, Mrs Debbie Wahle.  Do please seriously consider whether you have something to offer as we have a system that is worth preserving but which can only be preserved with the active participation of the community.

 

 

Charles Ekins.

Chief Justice, St Helena, Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha 

 

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