President of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) and Thulhaadhoo MP Hisaan Hussain has said it would take sixteen years to clear the Criminal Court's backlog at its current capacity.
The JSC and the Department of Judicial Administration (DJA) were summoned to the Parliament's Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, where they were questioned regarding the delays in looking into criminal cases. In addition to the JSC and DJA, judges from the Criminal Court and High Court were in attendance at the committee meeting.
Speaking on the issue, Hisaan said when 2019 started, 2022 cases were pending at the Criminal Court. In addition to the pending cases, she said that approximately 900 new cases are submitted to the court every year. Therefore, she pointed out that the court is currently processing both backlog and new cases.
While the court had such an enormous backlog, the court faced further challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hisaan said. She said that during the 2020 lockdown, the court attended to the most urgent cases and focused on issuing court orders. While several COVID-19 waves have come and gone since then, court employees also contracted the infection, and the jails were under lockdown by the time court officials recovered, she added.
Hisaan noted that the Criminal Court worked on only 168 days in 2020 and 199 days in 2021.
'Between 2018 and 2021, the court was able to reach full capacity only recently. What I mean is, in 2018, we had six judges - and the number kept fluctuating: from six to three to four and so on until we had five judges in 2019. Truth be told, the court started functioning with ten judges only by the end of 2020,' said Hisaan.
A plan to clear the backlog
Hisaan said although it is the vision of the Criminal Procedure to conclude a case within seven months from the date it is submitted, the vision cannot be followed through due to the existing backlog. While 1128 cases are in backlog at this time, she said the system cannot wait for the cases to be cleared in sixteen years.
Hisaan said the current plan is to work on the cases in blocks. She said that discussions are ongoing to hold additional hearings outside of official working hours, from 2:00 pm until 5:00 pm. She said that over ninety percent of the backlog could be cleared within a year if the plan was implemented.
'What we are proposing is to conduct hearings for one year from 2 pm to 5 pm, outside of official working hours. We do understand that our staff, PG attorneys, and all employees of the judicial sector will be exhausted,' Hisaan said.
Hisaan further highlighted the need for additional staff to carry out the proposed plan. It has been decided that an allowance will be given in addition to overtime, she said. This would cost an extra MVR 3.3 million per year, she said.
The second option is to hire more judges, she said. However, while this option would cost MVR 5.2 million per year, judges cannot be terminated from their positions after the one-year period ends, she said.
Hisaan said the cooperation from the Prosecutor General's Office is necessary to put the plans in action, and discussions are in progress with the PG Office. Further noting that Maldives Police Service and Correctional Service also have an important role to play, Hisaan said it is crucial that they complete their task of presenting people to court. If either authority fails to ensure the person in their custody arrives at court for their hearing, the hearing gets canceled, she said.