CARIBBEAN Court of Justice (CCJ) judge Adrian Saunders says he believes there is a danger that our regional courts of appeal can become overburdened if they are not already so, and systems should be put in place to address the issue.
Saunders was speaking last Thursday evening at the Second Distinguished Jurist Lecture of the Trinidad and Tobago Judicial Education Institute at the Hall of Justice in Port of Spain.
Among those in attendance were Chief Justice Ivor Archie, House Speaker Wade Mark, Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley, former president Arthur NR Robinson, CCJ judges, judges of the High Court and Court of Appeal, members of the Industrial Court, magistrates and attorneys.
Saunders shared his thoughts on the theme, Celebrating 50 years of the Court of Appeal of an Independent Trinidad and Tobago: The Role of the Court of Appeal in Developing and Preserving an Independent and Just Society.
He said the cases tried by our courts of appeal may come from a wide variety of sources.
"In Trinidad and Tobago, for example, appeals may reach the court from the High Court, the Magistrates' Courts, the Family Court, the Industrial Court, the Environmental Court, the Tax Appeal Board, the Equal Opportunities Commission and, if more specialised courts are created in the future, appeals may also reach the Court of Appeal from those specialised courts as well," Saunders said.
"Increases in the volume of cases decided by these lower courts will almost certainly lead to a concomitant rise in the number of cases in the Court of Appeal, especially as, for the most part, losing litigants at first instance have an almost automatic right of access to the Court of Appeal."
Saunders said as many as 387 appeals were filed in the Eastern Caribbean in 2009 and 482 in the Court of Appeal in Trinidad in 2010.
"I think there is a danger that our courts of appeal can become overburdened if they are not already so. Appellate courts may therefore have to devise measures to balance generous rights of access to them against the desire to hear, annually, only so many cases as can fairly and reasonably be dealt with by the appellate judges.
In particular, it is important to guard against a disproportionate amount of the court's precious resources being consumed by clearly unmeritorious appeals. All this points, perhaps, to the need for greater pro-activity by appellate judges.
Strategies that may be considered in this context could include tighter control of the court's processes, the employment of methods of Alternate Dispute Resolution, perhaps more proceedings being done purely on paper and even rule changes to require permission to appeal in certain cases," he said.
Turning his attention to criminal justice reform, Saunders said crime in the region reveals an interesting pattern. He said the illegal drug trade is a major determinant in spiralling homicide rates involving gang-related violence.
"A relative decline in petty and property crime is accompanied by alarming increases in homicides. This marks a change from high rates of property crime and low rates of violent crime that characterised the colonial era. The increase in violent crime has reached the point where, in many Caricom states, it poses a very serious threat to national security and heightens to intolerable levels the citizens' sense of insecurity.
"These indicators point to the critical need for criminal justice reform designed to address, inter alia, low conviction rates, inordinate delays and backlogs, inefficient caseflow, sentencing anomalies and low levels of public confidence in the criminal justice system.
"Since low crime rates and respect for the rule of law will attract investments and lead to increased productivity, the gains to be realised from addressing these problems extend as well to economic development. It is essential that, along with the other branches of government, the Judiciary should play a leadership role in guiding a holistic approach to criminal justice reform," he said.