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28 days jail, no bail

SEAN DOUGLAS Sunday, January 23 2011

click on pic to zoom in
Attorney General Anand Ramlogan...
Attorney General Anand Ramlogan...

THE Lower House on Wednesday passed a Bill to allow a suspect to be jailed for 28 days without the chance of getting bail, instead of the current limit of eight days after he/she first sees a magistrate.

The Bill was passed by the Government, but all Opposition MPs voted against. It now heads to the Senate.

At present the laws on both summary (lesser) offences and indictable (more serious) offences say a suspect can be held for eight days, but this period would be extended to a massive 28 days by the new Bill, the Miscellaneous Provisions (Remand) Bill 2010, piloted by Attorney General Anand Ramlogan.

Ramlogan justified the Bill by saying it was a key ingredient in the Government’s anti-crime thrust. By this one single measure, he said, the State could cut the cost of transporting, guarding, feeding and processing prisoners, thereby freeing up magistrates, police and resources to tackle crime elsewhere.

The AG said many persons are remanded in custody for non-bailable offences and for crimes for which the input of the Forensic Science Centre is needed. “It is unrealistic and impractical that prisoners have to be taken to court every eight or ten days...in circumstances in which there is no reasonable prospect that the cases will even get off the ground.”

He claimed the Bill would let the State save on the $12 million per year cost of transporting prisoners, would cut the case lists of magistrates which is as much as 40 cases per day for each magistrate, and cut the 471,000 backlog of court cases.

However the Opposition was not buying this.

Diego Martin North East MP Colm Imbert said the Bill could see persons charged with very minor (and archaic) offences such as wounding pigeons, bathing in the Maraval River and hanging clothes out to dry in the front of a shop, being jailed for 28 days on remand before having their case ventilated.

He said that despite many Government ministers previously having built careers by championing human rights, this Bill abused those very rights.

Further, Imbert lamented that the Bill imposed this harsh term on both relatively minor “summary” offences, and more serious “indictable” offences. He called for summary offences to be excluded.

He said unnamed judicial officers had told him they opposed the Bill’s change in the time period before a trial could be heard from the present period of eight days to 28 days. After a query by Ramlogan, Imbert said he was not citing a formal position held by the entire judiciary, and he did not name his sources.

He urged the Government to differentiate between indictable and summary offences.

While saying indictable offences, such as drug offences, can take months to see the accused get bail, Imbert said that by contrast most summary offences were relatively minor and trivial.

He said up to now most people charged under the Act would have been able to go to court within eight days of being charged and get their cases heard, but under the new Bill they now face 28 days in jail before their case is even heard.

Most such persons would be glad to pay a $500 fine to get out of the criminal justice system and the harsh conditions of the Remand Yard which were once spelt out by Justice Carol Gobin and the then Senator Suruj Rambachan.

Imbert noted that such persons are presumed innocent, until proven otherwise. Suspects on remand, he said, sleep 12 men to a cell, amid roaches and buckets of faeces.

Imbert challenged Ramlogan’s claim that the Bill makes economic sense because it cuts down on the frequency of trips to court and so reduces the cost of transporting prisoners and processing them. He said that in fact the more chances a suspect had of going to court is the greater his chance of getting released on bail and therefore the less time he’d spend in jail and the less cost of maintaining him in jail.

Imbert said that increasing the waiting period until a hearing meant that if a prosecuting policeman is absent three times from court, the suspect’s time in remand would stretch to three months. “The Attorney General admitted this Bill will cause people to spend more time in jail,” said Imbert.

He urged Ramlogan to set time limits on a suspect being held without trial, saying the UK has limits of 70 days and 98 days. Noting 400,000 cases pending in the Magistrates Courts, with 90,000 new cases added every one or two years, Imbert said an increase in the period between hearings would add to this burden. “Where are you going to find space for all of them?” he asked.

He had little faith in the ability of the proposed Inspector of Prisons announced earlier by Ramlogan in the person of Daniel Khan, son of Israel Khan SC, to solve the woes affecting thousands of prisoners, such as overcrowding and roach infestation. Imbert also said a suspect is glad to go to court every eight days as this lets their family briefly see them and check their condition, and get their cases heard quickly.

Legal Affairs Minister Prakash Ramadhar, in rebuttal, said that – contrary to Imbert’s focus on trite issues such as wounding pigeons – some 80 to 90 percent of the cases termed “summary” offences, in the Magistrates Court, are in fact serious matters such as robbery, drug-trafficking, firearms offences and wounding. He said a cut in the frequency of hearings would free up magistrates to actually hear cases rather than merely be a treadmill that keeps adjourning cases.

Ramadhar lamented the reality facing suspects in court and in jail, saying up to 80 suspects are held in a dock built for 20 persons. He said the public underestimates the number of persons framed by the police.

“Many innocent people are wrongfully kept in jail but cannot get to court,” he said.

Backing the Bill, he noted how awful a suspect’s ride to court can be in a prison van that speeds bumpily along. “You are bombarded with ‘blows’ to your body as you stand. It’s a traumatic thing. I’ve seen people coming out of the van, shaking like a leaf.”

Supporting the idea of an Inspector of Prisons, he said this was not just one man, but was an entire system. Ramadhar named measures to ease the strain on Magistrates Courts, saying they should no longer have to deal with liquor licences (unless there is an objection), and licences for hawkers and precious metal dealers.

He suggested thousands of traffic offences could be cleared from the 400,000 burden on magistrates courts.

He predicted a time when foreign visitors would be able to give evidence from their own countries to testify in local crimes they had seen in TT.

Ramadhar noted the effect on society of the swift justice of yesterday, where a suspect’s preliminary inquiry was heard within a week, case began within a month, and if he lost, his appeal was heard the next month, and if he lost this, he was hanged. While saying this state of affairs had a chilling effect on society, he said, “It had the effect on society that there are consequences on your actions.”

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