Monday, July 04, 2005

Court raps Social Services over delays

Administration of justice * by Brian Reyes

Two court hearings last week have shed light on serious Social Services Agency failings that are delaying the fair administration of justice and clogging up the court system.

The Magistrate’s Court heard on Friday how hold-ups in the writing of pre-sentencing reports [PSRs] have led to a significant number of cases that could otherwise have been closed remaining, instead, on hold.

Cases have had to be repeatedly adjourned awaiting the necessary reports, leaving defendants in a frustrating and stressful limbo while they wait to be sentenced.

And because lawyers are required to be present in court each time a case is adjourned, the delays also result in hefty legal bills for defendants who have employed lawyers privately and, in the case of those relying on legal aid, similar costs to the taxpayer.

In a related development, the Supreme Court heard earlier in the week that an offender had disappeared from the agency’s view for a year, even though probation officers were supposed to have been keeping a close eye on him at the time. The judge had requested the presence of a probation officer at the hearing, but none turned up.

The Chronicle contacted the Gibraltar Government last Friday with a request to discuss the matters raised in court with a senior official from the Social Services Agency, which has also responsibility for the Probation Service, but no one was available for interview at short notice.

Justice on Hold

The Magistrate’s Court heard on Friday how a young man who had pleaded guilty to possession and importation of less than one gramme of cocaine had been forced to wait some five months before he was sentenced.

The delay arose because Social Services’ had repeatedly failed to prepare a pre-sentencing report requested by the court on February 1st. Pre-sentencing reports, which are normally written by the agency’s Probation Service, can often be beneficial to defendants because they provide an independent assessment of that person’s circumstances, including any mitigating factors that should be taken into account when sentencing. Importation of a Class A drug such as cocaine, even in small quantities, normally carries a prison sentence. For five months, the man – a first time offender with no previous convictions - had appeared every three weeks in court carrying a bag with his possessions and fully expecting to be sent to jail. But time after time, his case was adjourned while the court awaited the arrival of the pre-sentencing report from Social Services. Last Friday, the report still had not been delivered to the court and the agency had not given any notice of when it might arrive.

Crown prosecutor Sharon Peralta argued that the magistrate, based on UK precedent, was entitled to adjourn yet again and continue waiting for the necessary document.
Ms Peralta said the Crown was aware that there were discussions with government and Social Services regarding delays with pre-sentencing reports, but added no further detail. “We’ve had discussions on this matter and progress is being made,” she told the court.

But Elliot Philips, representing the defendant, said the “huge delays” in preparation of the report had prejudiced his client, who had a right to be treated “fairly and expeditiously.” “We are looking at very strange circumstances in relation to the preparation of PSRs,” he told the court.

Both Ms Peralta and Charles Pitto, the Stipendary Magistrate, made clear during the hearing that the backlog of unwritten reports was significant and that it would take considerable manpower to clear it.

“There’s quite a few [reports outstanding], but the exact number I don’t know,” Mr Pitto said at one point during the proceedings.

Several lawyers later contacted by the Chronicle said there were at least 30 to 40 reports outstanding. Even before the hearing commenced on Friday morning, Mr Pitto had adjourned two other cases because the court was still waiting for reports from Social Services. The Magistrate also pointed to a lack of communication from the agency on pending cases.

“We do not receive any information from Social Services as to when reports will be ready,” he said. “We used to, but not any more.”

On Friday, Mr Pitto decided that it was “not appropriate” to wait any longer and sentenced the defendant in the cocaine case to one month in prison, suspended for 18 months.

Disappearing Act

Just a few days prior to that hearing, a man had appeared before the Supreme Court for breaching a probation order dating back to October 2003. Additional Judge Anthony Dudley had requested the presence of a probation officer at the hearing but Social Services instead asked John Montegriffo, the government’s Drug Strategy Coordinator, to attend. Mr Montegriffo explained that he had been the defendant’s probation officer at the time the order was made, though he had left that post about a year ago to become the drugs’ coordinator.

“Presumably some other probation officer took over your role and assisted [the defendant] during that period?” the judge asked. “And if so, why is that person not here?”

“Well, the truth is that at the time that I was appointed drugs’ coordinator, there was no replacement for me until quite recently,” Mr Montegriffo replied.

The court then heard how the defendant had been in custody for other offences between 2003 and 2005, though this was the first time he had been brought back to the Supreme Court for breach of the 2003 probation order.

“I do not hold you accountable at all Mr Montegriffo,” Judge Dudley said. “At least you are appearing in this court, which is more than I can say for a member of the probation team. It really is surprising that nobody from the relevant team has even bothered to turn up. But I suppose the upshot of it is that [the defendant] has, in theory, been on probation but in practice, really at least for the last 12 months or so, he has not. Is that a fair assessment?”

Mr Montegriffo agreed that it was, though he stressed that the defendant had been in prison for most of the time that he had been on probation. The judge noted that if this was the case, the defendant should have been “breached” beforehand.

Mr Montegriffo replied that this had in fact been his last recommendation as probation officer before moving to his new post last year.

“I’m not criticising you at all Mr Montegriffo,” the judge said. “You lose track of it and that is it. But it means that he is out of the system, it seems. You move out and nobody takes over. Not a good state of affairs.”

The court then heard the result of a psychiatric assessment of the defendant, who was finally sectioned under the Mental Health Ordinance and will spend the next year or so in the KGV hospital.

In closing, Judge Dudley said that the probation order made in September 2003 had been of no effect during the past year.

“It appears that you disappeared from the system in so far as the Probation Service was concerned,” he told the defendant. “Given the lack of support you have received under the order, in the circumstances it seems to me it would be unjust if I were to sentence you afresh for the underlying offence.”

He made no order in respect of the breach of probation.

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