Speaking at a press conference at the Office of the Opposition Leader in Port-of-Spain yesterday, Opposition Senators Gerald Ramdeen and Wayne Sturge criticised the proposed legislation tabled by Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi.
Ramdeen and Sturge, both attorneys, claimed that the move would contravene citizens’ right to fair trial and would have a negligible effect on the inefficiency in the criminal justice system.
“Trial by jury is a tried and tested system. This is not something to be toyed with incrementally or at all,” Sturge said.
Both senators pointed to a number of issues associated with the proposed legislation including potential claims of prejudice against judges.
“The point is when everyone sits together no one is going to expose their biases or their prejudices. But how do we know what is affecting a judge’s mind when an accused comes before him for a serious offence, which can mean sentencing that person to death or life imprisonment or strokes,” Sturge said.
Under the Miscellaneous Provisions (Trial By Judge Alone) Bill, an accused will be given an opportunity to elect whether they wish to be tried by a jury or by a judge alone, with their decision on the issue being binding once they receive competent legal advice first. Judges will then hear evidence, decide on their guilt or innocence and provide written reasons which may be used as grounds of appeal.
Sturge suggested that the option to elect for a jury-less trial was merely a gimmick used by the Government to desensitise the population on importance of jury trials.
Sturge also sought to explain delays in the protracted Vindra Naipaul-Coolman murder trial which was used as an example by Chief Justice Ivor Archie, when he proposed jury-less trials during his annual address at the opening of the law term last September.
“I don’t know what he (Al-Rawi) is hoping to achieve but I guess he is going to use some of the long trials like Naipaul-Coolman to say jury trials last too long. That is not true. That trial was an exceptional trial because it was complex and a joint trial with several persons charged is really 12 men being tried individually but done together for the purposes of convenience and saving money and time,” Sturge said as he claimed that individual trials would have taken between three and six months each.
While they stated that the Opposition was strongly opposed to the legislation in its current form, Ramdeen and Sturge admitted that it was almost impossible to stop it being passed as Al-Rawi did not certify that it requires a three-fifths majority as with legislation that impacted on constitutionally enshrined rights.
“There is little we can do to stop it being passed but we will not abdicate our duties and will point out flaws in the debates,” Ramdeen said as he alluded to the possibility of a constitutional lawsuit if it is eventually passed by Parliament.
Both senators were also critical of the Indictable Offences (Pre-Trial Procedure) Bill which is currently being debated by the House of Representatives.
They claimed that the legislation, which seeks to change the process of the preliminary inquires and the prosecution of criminal cases, copied legislation introduced previously by the People’s Partnership.
They said that the new legislation introduces a clause which allows accused people who the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) has failed to file their indictments within one year of them being charged, to apply to be discharged.
Sturge said that the clause operated similarly to the now repealed section 34 of the Administration of Justice (Indictable Offences) Act, which allowed people who had been indicted and were awaiting trial for more than 10 years to apply to be discharged.
However, Sturge noted that section 34 only applied to non-violent offences while the new legislation makes no distinction.
“When we piloted a similar clause in 2011 it did not relate to blood crimes. In this bill there is no limitation so a murderer and rapist can go free,” Sturge said.
Sturge also stated that the DPP’s office was not properly staffed to handle the new pre-trial procedure and complete it before 12-month deadline for filing indictments.
“The DPP says he needs 104 (prosecutors) and right now he has 34. So unless you find the additional 70 lawyers then you have a situation where the DPP cannot prefer the indictment in a 12 month period,” Sturge said.
Sturge and Ramdeen said that Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar had already indicated to Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley several other initiatives which could have brought immediate relief to the criminal justice system including an improved witness protection programme and improvements to Forensic Science Centre.