Wednesday, February 21, 2018

No ‘Amen’ for CJ’s pledge of DPP’s dozens

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Mark Fraser

 Ever hoping and praying for betterment, Trinidad and Tobago was last week encouraged to expect a surge in the human resources deployed for law enforcement.  Participants in the aptly titled “Prayer Plus” sessions heard Chief Justice Ivor Archie’s announcement that “several dozen” lawyers were being recruited to reinforce the legal battalion commanded by the Director of Public Prosecutions. 

Anywhere but in T&T, you could expect to hear from the assembled heads of Christian denominations a responsorial  “Amen”. In an action plan suggestive of war-time urgency, lawyers by the dozen are being drafted into service of the State. 

In this country, however, even the staunchest of believers have learned to counsel themselves against any crossing of the fingers. If ever, whenever, the DPP is enabled to muster forces enough to lighten his caseload, and to quick-march criminal matters through the courts, that will be the day.

 Skepticism, well-founded in experience, prevails about the prospects of advances in criminal justice.  Yet something eternally springing in the human breast prompts a sigh that, maybe, this time, a positive outcome will be realised. 

Two law-term openings ago, Chief Justice Archie had noted a generic shortage of criminal lawyers. That sounded counter-intuitive to us who suppose ever-rising crime to offer boom-time opportunities for defence lawyers. If local law schools aren’t being geared to produce practitioners to meet market demand, then such a reality disconnect confirms a measure of the T&T helplessness.

Some time between the 2009 Summit of the Americas and his own 2010 “leap of faith” from the High Court bench to the UNC platform, Herbert Volney groused aloud, contrasting the open-handed summit spending on Johnny Walker Blue scotch whisky against the mingy underfunding of criminal justice.

“It is irrefutably in the public domain,” Justice Volney pronounced, “that vacancies in the (DPP’s office) have existed in the complement of prosecutors for several years, with few prepared to remain or to enter into the service, due to breadline wages and inadequate terms and conditions of service.”

He was ruling against the State for delays blamed on short-staffing: “The failure of governance in this regard has run the prosecution afoul of the constitutional safeguard of a fair trial.” 

Such “failure of governance” survived Mr Volney’s later two years as Justice Minister, which ended with the notorious over-reach of Section 34. Since then, Chief Justice Archie, learned both in law and in management, and head of the Judicial and Legal Service Commission, is singularly for now carrying forward the standard dropped by the fallen Justice Minister.

Outdated rules and arrangements, such as the time-devouring preliminary inquiries, requiring laborious transcribing of every spoken word, checkmate moves to expedite the freer flow of cases. It all sounds like the content of missions and mandates long before proclaimed in T&T.

In the 1990s, for the Piarco airport project investigations, and as late as 2011 for UDeCOTT the forensic accounting skills of Canadian Bob Lindquist were engaged. Last week, CJ Archie called attention to the continuing lack of local expertise in sleuthing white-collar crime: “That is an area in which we really need help.”  

That T&T has proved, in critical ways, incapable of helping itself is the stuff of a cringing realization. Over the years that the proverbial “big fish” have remained uncaught and unconvicted, the Lindquist work yet failed to advertise the need for scholarships to meet a clearly growing area of need. 

Like handfuls of mud, corruption allegations keep being flung this way and that, in line with changes of political administrations. But it is the measure of its persistent underdevelopment that T&T remains under-equipped with what the CJ calls “really specialised skills” to investigate and facilitate the prosecution of even potentially exemplary cases.

The Prayer Plus sessions heard other confessions of the faith in overwhelming force. In line with the reigning doctrine that T&T needs ever more police officers and more stations, acting Police Commissioner Stephen Williams claimed for 2014 “the largest in many, many years” of  numbers of recruits.  

Since media consumers would hardly otherwise notice, the top cop reported police 2014 seizures of illegal firearms reaching more than 50 a month. Nevertheless, as gun murders proceed unabated, Mr Williams cited other systemic handicaps: scanners acquired to sweep containerised cargoes for illicit inserts remain “not yet operational” at T&T seaports and airports. 

For among other things, it was his repudiation of the belief in ever more boots on the ground that former Police Commissioner Dwayne Gibbs Williams earned resentment and stirred resistance. But he too had reported that equipment such as tasers and speed radar, having earlier been acquired, only remained unused.

Having a sense of how things work out here, I worry about whether the DPP’s office can house the cubicles and the offices required for “several dozen” additional lawyers. Not to mention the additional parking spaces.


Fearing the worst, I wonder if the deployment of additional “dozens” of lawyers must await completion of finishing works in the downtown high-rises left unoccupied since the Patrick Manning days.