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500 AWAITING TRIAL FOR MURDER

By JANELLE DE SOUZA Sunday, June 15 2014

click on pic to zoom in

Over 500 persons are awaiting trial for murder in Trinidad and Tobago, and with approximately seven years for an indictable matter to go to trial, these cases are unlikely to be heard anytime soon if the justice system continues as is, Chief Justice Ivor Archie said yesterday.

Attorney General Anand Ramlogan, however, noted a steady increase of funds allocated to the Judiciary with each National Budget, wondering why was the justice system not working more efficiently.

Ramlogan also raised the idea of plea bargaining to decrease the number of cases that go to trial.

Archie however, countered stating that the funding was still deficient and that he was limited by the restrictions placed on spending.

Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Roger Gaspard responded to Ramlogan’s suggestion of plea bargaining, saying that, with the low detection rate and lack of strength of evidence, criminals have no real motivation to “cop a plea.”

The men were speaking yesterday as part of a panel discussion at the Dana Saroop Seetahal Symposium: Re-engineering the Criminal Justice System, at the Noor Hassanali Auditorium at the St Augustine Campus of the University of the West Indies.

In his contribution, Archie identified three main stumbling blocks of the judicial system namely preliminary inquiries; juries; and the rules of evidence, particularly against hearsay.

At the moment, he said, Trinidad and Tobago simply has a different type of preliminary inquiry than originally used - that the layers of processes take time in the magistrates’ court and that it was necessary to repeat the process again in the High Court. He suggested the DPP decide who to prosecute indictably or summarily.

On the subject of juries, Archie said it was “the most inefficient way” of conducting a trial.

“We as lawyers, whether the advocates or the judge, then have to try to explain all the concepts that we think we understand, to a jury, who we are never quite certain, ever understands it,” he said.

Archie expressed concern that, with a jury, there was a chance that the trail would be swayed by a more skilled negotiator, instead of by a forensic exercise, assessing information to arrive at a verdict consistent with the law.

“If it is the latter, then we are handing the most critical part of the exercise to people who are not trained to perform it, and who operate with no transparancy or accountability. If we really think about it, many of the evidential rules and regulations that we have are really all about protecting the jury from making illogical mistakes and false assumptions,” he said.

Responding to Ramlogan’s comment that the allocation for the administration of justice in the National Budget increased from $339 million in 2010 to $366 million in 2012 and his wondering why then was the justice system not running more efficiently, Archie said the administration of justice was under-resourced. He said $360 million was less than 0.5 percent of the National Budget while the benchmark in countries with “efficient and productive” judicial systems, was approximately two to three percent of the Budget.

“If I could manage it without all the strictures that attend public service expenditure. For God sake, do not give me responsibility and not the freedom to manage!” he said.

In suggesting a “conversational approach towards litigation” in the form of plea bargains, Ramlogan noted that in the United States, 90 to 95 percent of criminal cases do not reach trial because of the use of plea bargains.

“What we want is a court system that is effective, that is fair and just but one that can change the social and political culture and psychology of the court from one where the people are there to serve the court to where the courts are there to serve the people,” said Ramlogan.

However, Gaspard slammed the idea, stating that while the statistics sound good, the reason persons charged with criminal offences were inclined to plead guilty, that plea bargaining was so effective in the United States was because of the strength of evidence gathered and presented.

“How can we in this jurisdiction shout about the benefits of plea bargaining out of one side of our mouths and then out of the other, we talk about low detection rates. Do the criminals not know, do persons who are charged with criminal offences not know, that detection rates in Trinidad and Tobago, and indeed in the Caribbean, are particularly and disappointingly low?” he asked.

Gaspard said if there were so many problems that affect the speedy delivery of justice, there was no incentive for those charged with criminal offences to plead guilty.

Ramlogan later agreed, stating that as the legislation was not yet written, incentives to plead could be included. In addition, he noted that citizens were ahead of the law, using technology to fight crime by broadcasting pictures of criminals, missing persons or stolen vehicles to their friends, allowing others to be on the alert.

“We need to break the mould, set a new paradigm, and move forward with a different manner of thinking,” he said. Ramlogan also noted that the Abolition of Preliminary Inquiries Bill was passed by the Lower House and will go to the Senate soon, that Plea Bargaining legislation was being drafted and that changes in the DNA, fingerprint, and Financial Intelligence Unit laws were being debated.

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