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Poor can’t pay for lawyers

By Miranda La Rose Thursday, May 22 2014

The Legal Aid and Advisory Authority is moving to set up a public defenders department to meet the needs of its clients in-house instead of engaging private lawyers.

“We are moving towards a public defenders department, whereby, as in America and Jamaica, the lawyers at Legal Aid will defend people charged with criminal offences. We will have other representation in the civil arena,” chairman of the Board Directors of the LAAA Israel Khan, SC said. Khan briefed the media yesterday at the start of a tour of the new headquarters of the LAAA at the Trinidad and Tobago Manufacturers’ Association (TTMA) building in Barataria. The tour also coincided with the 300th meeting of the board of the organisation. The LAAA, which now occupies the first and the third floors of the TTMA building at a cost of $90,000 monthly, is in need of its own accommodation, Khan said.

Though he said it was not proper protocol to make public requests, he appealed to Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Legal Affairs Bernard Sylvester to “provide us with a building so that we can provide the legal services to the impoverished citizens.”

He suggested that such accommodation could be made available “in the near future, like 24th May 2015.”

At present the LAAA has 30 legal officers, but Khan said some 60 more are needed to properly carry out its advisory role and representative functions in a court of law.

At present two legal officers and investigators share offices and to observe the rules of confidentiality the investigator and legal officer have to leave the offices during interviews.

The move from the former office at Edward and Oxford Streets in Port-of-Spain was necessary, Khan said because the building had become inhabitable. However, the LAAA is still looking for accommodation for a branch office in Port-of-Spain to serve residents in north west Trinidad. The LAAA, which has been in existence for 38 years, Khan said “is indispensable to the rule of law and indispensable to the criminal justice system.”

Stating that a crisis situation exists in TT as far as crime is concerned, he said, “I do not know why it happens, but it is impoverished people who get charged for criminal offences. I do not know if the rich people do not commit crimes, and if they commit, why they are not caught.”

The poor cannot afford attorneys and providing legal aid to the needy is not a favour. “It is their right,” he said. To those who are concerned that the LAAA assists those who are involved in criminal activities, Khan said “the rule of the law indicates that every accused person is presumed to be innocent and the onus is on the State to establish guilt.”

Nevertheless, he said that everyone has to be concerned with crime because no one is exempt. He referred to the killing of the late Dana Seetahal, SC, by the criminal elements in society.

“We will continue to soldier on because of the presumption of innocence,” he said.

While people may go to the offices of LAAA at the head office and the four other branch offices for help, Khan said that as a matter of duty counsel the LAAA is also informed by the police of cases that involves murder and youths being charged.

One such case, he said, was that of Winston Cudjoe who was charged for unlawful killing of his 17-month-old grandson.

Immediately when the LAAA was informed, he said he called the secretary and an attorney was assigned to look after his interest.

However, by the time contact was made with him, his relatives had already engaged a lawyer.

“We intervened from the very inception when he was in custody,” he said. “We did not know he was going to retain someone.”

Noting that “the whole country is sympathising in that case,” he said the Director of Public Prosecutions has advised that Cudjoe should be charged of manslaughter. “We feel he should be properly represented,” he said. Cudjoe made his first court appearance on Monday.

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