IN September 2016, my opinion headlined “The levees are broken” was published in daily newspapers wherein I analysed the criminal caseload statistics published by the judiciary in its annual report for the 2014-2015 law term, to highlight the point that the criminal justice system was teetering on the brink of collapse.
Fast-forward four years. This warning was confirmed by the Chief Justice in his address at the opening of the Law Term 2020-2021 on October 7, 2020, where he advised that the criminal justice system was “on the verge of collapse”.
Deflecting responsibility, the CJ attributed this “distressing truth” to factors beyond the judiciary’s control and appeared to train his guns on the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions for filing only 12 indictments over the past year.
Reactions to the CJ’s statement were swift. One judge, speaking on condition of anonymity, characterised the utterances as “highly irresponsible and reckless”, whilst outspoken Senior Counsel Israel Khan opined that the CJ should not have made such a statement publicly, even if it was his belief.
Not for the first time, I have the misfortune to respectfully disagree with the Senior Counsel since it is the burying of these issues in the first place that has led the criminal justice system to its precipitous perch.
For many years, criminal law practitioners and other commentators have portended the collapse of the criminal justice system with no real circuit breakers being implemented to stop the rot. It is time for the public to realise the extent of the problem and the impotence of the actors to remedy same, notwithstanding their uncanny ability to repel blame.
Enter the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), as accomplished a glottologist as you could find, who strategically dispatched an eight-page press release on Saturday, October 17, 2020 (and made headlines in all the Sunday newspapers) to respond to the CJ’s “spectacularly disingenuous and misleading” contention.
Much to his credit, the DPP confessed to the filing of a mere 12 indictments during the law term 2019-2020 and apologised unreservedly for the “atypically small number of indictments filed during the last law term”. He highlighted four contributing factors as staff shortages, Covid-19, reneging by the judiciary to accept 450 committals and related indictments and spatial limitations which jeopardise safe accommodation.
Just as the CJ must not be permitted to evade accountability by his use of eloquent language and “cloudy” statistics, neither must the DPP be given a free pass. His assertion that the 12 indictments filed during the past year was “atypical” can too be construed as misleading since the judiciary’s annual report reveals that during the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 law terms, a total of 46 and 48 indictments were filed, respectively. These are incredibly low figures for a jurisdiction with such a high crime rate, especially when placed in the context of the 324 indictments filed locally during the 2016-2017 law term.
Although our Constitution does not confer upon an accused person the right to a trial within a reasonable time, the dilatoriness of the DPP to file indictments, particularly in respect of persons incarcerated, can be perceived as a serious injustice and gross dereliction of duty, regardless of the state of the backlog in the High Court. The restrictions associated with Covid-19 only began to take effect in March 2020 and cannot be used as a justification for the filing of indictments when the nature of this work can be undertaken remotely. Neither should staff shortages nor spatial limitations be accepted as an excuse. Staff shortages and inadequate accommodation have been a recurring theme at the Office of the DPP since time immemorial. It was certainly a mainstay during my 12-year tenure in that office.
Why hasn’t this been addressed and for how much longer will it be advanced?
I despair that lawyers, for all their legal acumen, do not make the best managers. Regrettably, this is the “distressing truth” that has led our criminal justice system to the edge of collapse.
Brent D Winter
Port of Spain