June 28, 2009

Greasing the wheels of justice

Greasing the wheels of justice
Source: Trinidad and Tobago Express
Date: Monday June 29, 2009

At a symposium organised last month by the Crime and Justice Commission, a wide range of issues were repeated by many of the speakers and panelists, about the state of the Trinidad and Tobago justice system.

Among them the shortage of lawyers at the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, the severe constraints on the operations of the Legal Aid and Advisory Authority, the poor record on implementation of recommendations ostensibly agreed to by administrations, the appalling conditions under which some offenders are held and the debate over calls for the abolition of the jury system.

Prison conditions were revisited particularly from the point of view of the remand facilities, given what all agreed was the inordinate length of time it took for preliminary enquiries to take place.

Indeed, the retention of the preliminary enquiry is another hot topic in the long list of matters relative to the country's justice system. And this is tied to the other matter about the granting of bail.

One attorney at the symposium declared that on average it takes more than a year for a preliminary enquiry to begin. And then it takes on average more than two years for those hearings to be completed, and sometimes a further two years at best for a case to get started after it has been "sent upstairs'' from the magistrate's court.

The now spectacular case of the accused in the Piarco Airport Corruption matter took eight years at the preliminary enquiry stage. The matters are yet to begin at the assizes.

As a point of reference, American citizens who were accused and charged with offences related to this same project, after the local courts began hearing of the matters, have long ago been found guilty on several counts and are well into serving their time in prison.

Looking in on the justice system in Trinidad and Tobago, the lone non-Caribbean national on the Caribbean Court of Justice, British Jurist Justice David Hayton has cited the inordinate lengths of time criminal matters take to get through the system here as a significant deficiency.

Honing in on what he termed "the old fashioned preliminary enquiry system'', Justice Hayton said it contributed considerably to a system which lacked efficiency. He cited the Piarco Airport case, and then considered some matters in which it took up to five years before hearings began in the High Court, after leaving the magistrate's court.

His observation partly was that "it gives plenty of time for witnesses to have second thoughts, or to be intimidated or threatened or just leave the jurisdiction.''

Coming out of the Crime and Justice Symposium, a fresh set of recommendations, with attendant plan of action with timeframes for meeting critical objectives is slated to go forward to the authorities.

By all accounts and from our well lived experiences, the dictum that justice delayed is justice denied is a reality warranting the most urgent attention, as one of the weapons in meeting the daunting crime wave which the country has been battling for sometime now.

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