On 29 August 2016 when I took up office as Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) of the British Virgin Islands (BVI), I knew I was embarking on an incredible journey.
But I had no suspicion, as I left the islands on the conclusion of my first year in office, that my ‘ordinary days’ were gone and ‘extraordinary days’ were to become the norm.
Pre-hurricane: the daily diet of the BVI DPP
There is no typical day and I never really know what will happen when I walk into the office. The DPP is responsible for personally signing every single criminal complaint/indictment before the courts and thus is answerable as such on a daily basis. My day usually commences considering arrest matters as quickly as possible so that the defendants can be produced in court, as well as indictments drafted by my counsel and dealing with evidential matters as and when they arise in ongoing cases. In addition to court appearances at all levels, the DPP personally drafts and has the conduct of all cases in the Privy Council.
The first real shock to the system, when I embarked within a month prosecuting my first case (double murder), were the long court hours of 9am-5pm, following which I return to the office to respond to emails, letters and messages of the day, as well as consulting with my counsel who invariably needed assistance after their equally long days in court. The criminal courts comprise a Visiting Court of Appeal (once per law term), a single High/Crown Court and two resident simultaneous magistrates’ courts trying serious offences with lengthy maximum powers of sentence.
The daily diet of the DPP also includes advisory meetings with the Governor in relation to all aspects of the criminal justice system/legislation reform, being answerable as Head of Department for staff, budget and the implementation of whatever new government policies had come into force. The DPP sits in on the Child Abuse Investigation Team (CAIT) meetings in relation to vulnerable children in the territory, chairs meetings with the Commissioner of Police, co-chairs meetings with the United State Virgin Islands Police and The Financial Services Commission, as well as formulating domestic violence policies, amongst others.
In September 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria swept away the criminal justice system of the BVI. In just a few hours our court houses were destroyed, throwing open the doors of the prison, releasing desperate convicted child sexual offenders as well as murderers. From London, home on a scheduled visit, I tried to ensure the safety of my prosecutorial staff, stranded all over the island without communication. The judiciary was escorted from the islands to St Lucia and beyond, but my prosecutors, who had ensured convictions and lengthy sentences, were left vulnerable. The long days in London for the first month after Irma necessitated huge helpings of re-assurance to staff who had been severely traumatised by the hurricane, as well as daily communications with the Commissioner of Police in relation to sighting of escapees, and the Foreign Office. I became a hub updating and liaising, albeit from the UK. My staff’s daily experiences caused untold distress, cut-throat gestures were made in their direction when they left their homes to try and obtain food, water or communicate with their families via patchy mobile coverage. After the first few weeks the repetitive question from my staff was when I was returning. In order to prioritise the needs of the Office of the DPP, I made the decision to return, with my son’s words ringing in my ears, ‘Mum you are walking into a disaster zone, please don’t become part of it.’
"In just a few hours our court houses were destroyed, throwing open the doors of the prison, releasing desperate convicted child sexual offenders as well as murderers."
Nothing prepares you for the devastation that greeted me when I landed, a month after Irma. My house, including its few treasured possessions, had been blown away. The landscape resembled a nuclear waste land. By now the majority of dangerous prisoners had been recaptured and sent to St Lucia, but the files of looting, possession of guns and the murders that had been committed in the aftermath of Irma were piling up on my desk.
My days now bore little resemblance to my first year. My overwhelming priority was to ensure the courts sat so that defendants could be remanded, but we had no secure building in which to try them. The severely damaged insecure police station was the only option.
To engender a feeling of public safety, a single magistrate began sitting, in a temporary small room at the police station and I as DPP ensuring the visibility of my Office, prosecuted the most serious allegations. The cases of those on bail are simpler, including looting police and customs officers as well as drug offences and domestic violence. The problem cases were the defendants charged with murder/firearms, as no secure setting existed. Armed officers attended although that provided little reassurance to the magistrate and myself in the small confines of our temporary courtroom where the defendants were within touching distance of us.
The only rapid solution I could find was to introduce audio-visual link legislation, which we take for granted in the UK. I drafted the Bill, submitted it to the Attorney General, answered questions before the House of Assembly and it passed in December 2017. Finances are still needed to implement it ,as well as finding a more suitable venue from which to conduct the hearings with the prison.
Today, I concentrate on restoring a basic criminal justice system. Each day brings a small achievement, whether it be that a defendant is remanded, pleads guilty or is sentenced, the wheels of criminal justice are turning slowly. Legislative advice is now focused on restoring the system, whether it be through audio visual link, possible judge only trials in murder cases (how to convene a jury when people are displaced and homeless?) reform of the jury system, witness anonymity, and expeditious trials without compromising human rights.
I have developed strong physical and emotional ties during my short time in the BVI. The people are warm, friendly, welcoming and hospitable. As many who have visited can confirm, the islands ‘draw you in’. I have no doubt the islands and the criminal justice system will be a strong model for the future in this region.
I treasure every minute and the contribution I am able to make to the territory and recovery. The adventure which I started in August 2016 continues. Watch this space!
Contributor Kim Hollis QC, Director of Public Prosecutions, British Virgin Islands
Making the move from criminal Bar to BVI
Having packed up my sentimental photos and possessions, I boarded a flight and left family and friends behind to travel across the Atlantic to the British Virgin Islands. These are a small but important group of islands with a global reputation for commercial and financial services and a population of about 35,000.
Road Town on the Island of Tortola is the hub, or administrative capital. The Government Law Offices are located there, which are shared with the Attorney General and are walking distance from the courts and House of Assembly.
The beach, azure blue seas and deckchair I had been relentlessly teased about by my colleagues in the UK when I was first appointed remained firmly out of reach. In my first whirlwind weeks, I made courtesy visits to meet His Excellency Governor, The Premier, ministers, judges and those that strict protocol dictated. I did not see a beach for the first month as I grappled with the demands of a new office and the fact that for the first time in my life I was an employee – of the Government of the Virgin Islands.