The American judicial system is impressive, especially in its criminal jurisdiction! Ariel Castro was arrested in May 2013 for the kidnapping and abuse of three young women. In July 2013, he was sentenced to life plus 1,000 years and his house where the women were captive has since been demolished. Bernie Madoff was dispatched with similar speed for his fraudulent Ponzi scheme. Rod Blagojevic, the governor of the state of Illinois who tried to sell Barack Obama’s senate seat, was impeached by the State Senate, then indicted by a federal grand jury in April 2009, convicted in August 2010 and sentenced to 14 years in jail.
Closer to home, Eduardo Hillman-Waller and Ronald Birk, who were part of the Piarco airport corruption enquiry, were indicted in Florida, USA, in November 2005, tried in November 2006 and convicted and sentenced in January 2007. They have already served their sentences. By contrast, their co-accused, Steve Ferguson and Ish Galbaransingh, are only now proceeding to trial in the High Court in Port of Spain. A simple assault matter before a magistrates’ court involving Machel Montano took all of five years before it was concluded.
Is it that the American judicial system does not observe “due process”? In most respects, their system is similar to our English-based system. Is it that the American system routinely produces more wrong convictions because of the speed in disposing of matters? No one has ever suggested that. What is clear is that the American judicial system abhors delay. The Americans believe justice must be done fairly, but must also be done swiftly, and they implemented legislation over 40 years ago to do just that.
Where are the frequent adjournments on account of sick attorneys or sick witnesses, or the accused not being brought to court? Where are the procedural or constitutional motions which halt the substantive trial while these applications are heard, appealed and appealed further? Where are the American rats to consume evidence in cocaine trafficking trials? Why do files apparently not go missing in the United States?
I do not of course hold that America is a paragon of judicial virtue. America’s judiciary must live with the infamy of Dred Scott (upholding slavery), Plessy v Ferguson (upholding racial segregation and corrected by Brown v Board of Education) and I daresay, the dubious decisions on the 2004 presidential election and Citizens United v Federal Election Commission.
The United States engages in rendition and seems to come down differently from the European and UK courts on the treatment of terrorism suspects. But to its credit, the United States fixes its errors, disciplines in exemplary fashion those members of its elite who transgress, and generally attempts to maintain high standards worthy of emulation.
The problems in our judicial system, defined broadly here to include policing and prisons, are systemic. The investigative capabilities of the Police Service are seriously deficient, especially for complex white-collar crimes. The manpower resources available to the Director of Public Prosecutions are inadequate. And this is just to bring the matter to the door of the court. Then the lawyers take over.
But it is not only the attorneys who are responsible for the delays. As the recent (July 2013) Privy Council case of Ramnarine v Ramnarine shows, judges too may contribute to delay. In that case, there was a four-year hiatus between the conclusion of the trial (2002) and the judge providing his oral judgment (2006), plus another 22 months before the written judgment and notes of evidence were produced. It then took another two years before the appeal was heard in 2010, and further three years before reaching the Privy Council in 2013.
The Judiciary’s Annual Report indicates that the median time between filing and “disposition” is now just over two years. Information and communications technologies, including telephone hearings and video conferencing, have been deployed to support the process, including the possibility of video conference hearings from the precincts of the Remand Yard. The new initiative to introduce court-annexed mediation is also to be applauded as it should redirect matters into a quicker, more cost-effective channel for resolution of disputes and which will certainly be more helpful to the parties than litigation.
But beyond these worthy initiatives, driven in the main by the Judiciary itself, the progress in improving efficiency and reducing delay seems to be slow.
There remains much work to be done to get us anywhere close to American judicial efficiency where as a country we can look with pride on a judicial system which produces rapid detection, swift prosecution and safe convictions made by diligent, secure and well-paid judicial officers. This must involve wresting control of human resources matters from the dead hand of the Public Service Commission and, based on the principles of subsidiarity, judicial independence and efficiency, allowing the Judiciary to appoint, discipline and manage its own human resources. Without a reasonably high standard of judicial efficiency, as a society we are all denied the judicial efficiency and hence the justice we deserve.
• Dr Terrence Farrell is a former deputy Central Bank governor and former chief executive of One Caribbean Media Ltd, parent company of the Trinidad Express Newspapers.
Martin Daly’s column returns next week.