Legal Matters — Right of an accused to address court in criminal cases

The recent judgment in the appeal case of Eric Benjamin Beesoo v The State is a reminder, if at all it was necessary, of an accused’s right to obtain a fair hearing in a case in court.

The sometimes forgotten and basic fair hearing component discussed in that case is essentially that, in all criminal cases, a person is entitled to adduce his or her evidence and address the Court with a view to mitigate his/her sentence, notwithstanding whether he or she pleads guilty.

The appeal of Mr Beesoo was against the judgment of the District Court which convicted him on two grounds – (a) driving a motor vehicle whilst being unlawfully unfit to drive by reason of his being under the influence of intoxicating drink to such an extent as to be incapable of having proper control of a vehicle (‘Ground 1’), and (b) whilst being in charge of the vehicle when he was reasonably suspected of being under the influence of alcohol, by unlawfully failing to submit himself on the spot to a breath test as required by a police officer in uniform (‘Ground 2’).

He had pleaded guilty to the two counts and during the course of the hearing, the prosecution had chosen not to produce evidence against Mr Beesoo. The latter was explained his constitutional rights and exercised his right to silence.

With Mr Beesoo’s previous conviction for drunk driving in mind, the Learned Magistrate sentenced him to pay a fine of Rs 20,000 and undergo 3 months imprisonment in connection with Ground 1. As regards Ground 2, he was ordered to pay a fine of Rs 5,000 together with Rs 100 as costs. He was further disqualified from holding a licence for all types of vehicle for a period of 8 months.

The gist of Mr Beesoo’s case was that there had been a failure on the part of the Magistrate to hear him before proceeding to the sentencing exercise. The appeal was not resisted by the State acting as Respondent in that matter. The salient points observed by their Lordships in the appeal case are as follows:

The prosecution should not have failed to adduce any evidence against Mr Beesoo even though he chose not to make any statement for purposes of his defence. In criminal matters, as highlighted by the Judges, the prosecution has the burden of proving facts and circumstances of an offence, even though an accused has pleaded guilty.

Their Lordships referred to the trial court record setting out the proceedings and noted that it was unclear whether the accused was sufficiently explained that he had the right to adduce evidence or make any mitigating statement requesting the court to alleviate his sentence.

They further observed that in the light of section 72 of the District and Intermediate Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act, “it is a well-established principle of criminal justice that in order to enable the Court to decide on the appropriate sentence, irrespective of whether the accused has pleaded guilty or not guilty, there should be a proper hearing with a view to apprise the Court of the relevant facts and circumstances surrounding the offence and to give the accused an opportunity to express himself in mitigation.”

Their Lordships also referred to the case of Lachman v The State [2012 SCJ 202] where the Court laid emphasis on the fact that a Court must ensure that sufficient evidence has been produced before the passing of a custodial sentence.

His Lordship Benjamin G. M. Joseph and her Ladyship Rita Teelock concluded that there was not a fair and meaningful hearing before sentencing was done. They accordingly quashed the decision of the Learned Magistrate and referred the matter back to the trial Court for a fair and proper hearing, as per the principles enunciated above, before getting to the sentencing exercise.

The case brings out the necessary requirement upon a sentencing court to assess the case of the prosecution and to ascertain that the accused may have something to say for his defence or which could justify the alleviation of the sanction to be imposed, before pronouncing the judgement.

* Published in print edition on 1 July 2016

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