Defence attorney Peter Champagnie, QC, has called for a ticketing system for people who continue to flout the COVID-19 containment measures. At the same time, he is urging lawmakers to develop legislation specific to the novel coronavirus pandemic arguing that the current Disaster Risk Management Act (DRMA) being relied on was not designed for this purpose.
Jamaicans on Sunday were introduced to a raft of strict measures by the Government which declared that the country had reached its tipping point as far as the management of the pandemic was concerned with “unacceptably high case numbers” and hospitals overflowing.
Speaking with the Jamaica Observer yesterday, Champagnie said harsher measures were needed in order to convince Jamaicans to comply.
“To the credit of the Government I have heard that there is contemplation insofar as a ticketing system is concerned for breaches of the DRMA. I don’t know the details of it, but it is a step in the right direction, and it needs to come as quickly as possible. You need to have a ticketing system for persons who do not wear masks in public, persons who have parties or gatherings beyond a certain number, and also persons who continue to flout the law in relation to the curfew hours,” Champagnie said.
His proposal for a ticketing system would reduce the burden on the Jamaica Constabulary Force, which is itself stretched tackling crime.
“What you find happening in many instances is that a lot of resources are used in the arrest of persons who, for instance, breach the curfew orders. It requires a number of police officers, sometimes in the region of 15 to 20, whereas if you were to issue them with a ticket it would minimise the amount of work any one officer would have to do and, coupled with that, the fines that are being imposed now are minuscule,” Champagnie reasoned.
“Persons who sometimes hold these parties in breach of the DRMA make a calculated risk. They say, ‘Well, if I am in breach, the most I will do is go to the courts and pay a $30,000 fine, that is the cost of two Hennessey bottles, so let me just increase my costs.’
“So the fines need to be severe, because Jamaica, whether or not we accept it, the fact is, by and large, the discipline is not with us. We go to the United States and other countries and we dare not litter, whereas when we are here it is par for the course,” he added.
He argued that a ticketing system which mandates that payments be made at tax offices or online would not only free up the police in terms of manpower and resources, but would also reduce the need for people to attend court.
“So, for example, the police arrest 20 persons for breaches, these persons are going to go to the parish court, they are going to be joining a line, chances are the issue of social distancing, they may breach that because you have a crowd, and that defeats the whole purpose. Whereas, if you had a ticketing system, they could pay online and if they don’t pay by a certain time you go to issuing a warrant for them,” he said.
“That is the view I hold. To date we have not had a situation where anybody is sent to prison for a breach of the DRMA, and I understand that, but at the same time if you were to do it this way with the ticketing system you wouldn’t have these large numbers before the court, because with the best will in the world there are still challenges in terms of the crowd control at court,” the attorney said.
He, in the meantime, pointed to several countries that have already introduced COVID-19-specific legislation.
“In Canada they have the COVID-19 Emergency Response Act that was passed on March 25, 2020 and in England you have similar legislation that was passed — the Coronavirus Act of 2020. So, in other jurisdictions, months after the recognition that we were facing a pandemic, their legislature passed legislation specifically dealing with COVID measures,” Champagnie said.
“Some attorneys have argued that the DRMA is really designed and geared for a natural disaster, the Quarantine Act is designed for people coming off a vessel, the Public Health Act doesn’t really take into account all of these things, so what you really need is specific legislation dealing with the pandemic,” he stated.
Added Champagnie: “In New Zealand, for instance, you have what is called the COVID-19 Public Health Response Act, so you have a number of countries that have implemented (new) legislation.
“The DRMA is being stretched to its limit, beyond its capability, and it wasn’t designed for that.”
On March 13 last year, following the discovery of the first case of the virus in the island, the Government declared the entire island a “disaster area” in accordance with Section 26 of the 2015 Disaster Risk Management Act. A declaration of such kind can only be made once the prime minister — on advice of the minister responsible for disaster preparedness — is satisfied that a disaster is occurring and that extraordinary measures are required to prevent or minimise loss of life or harm to the health of people. Upon the declaration of a disaster area, the prime minister may, by order, identify and direct the enforcement of several measures which he believes are desirable for removing or safeguarding against such a hazard.