'Criminal bar suffering': Chateram Sinanan

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By Keino Swamber keino.swamber@trinidadexpress.com

PERSONS who once qualified for representation from the Legal Aid and Advisory Authority (LAAA) may soon be required to foot their own legal bills once it is ascertained they can afford to privately retain an attorney.

LAAA director Chateram Sinanan on Tuesday told the Express it is one of the ways to make the practice of criminal law more attractive to attorneys entering the profession.

Sinanan believes by allowing those who can afford to privately retain an attorney to do so, more attorneys may be encouraged to offer representation at the criminal courts.

"By and large, the entire criminal bar as a whole is suffering since young attorneys seem not to be too inclined to do criminal matters," Sinanan said.

"It affects the administration of justice. For example, in San Fernando, if you have a matter with four or five accused, the other courts are starved for attorneys.

"If we could make the criminal practice a more lucrative practice... because you realise Legal Aid would not pay as much as a person could charge with a private brief. For example, in a capital matter, depending on the length and so on, in private practice a client could pay $40,000 to $50,000 and up, whereas Legal Aid will be paying between $15,000 and $20,000.

"In a civil matter, if an attorney spends one month in trial in a civil matter, the fees in that matter could be $200,000 to $300,000. So you see, the brief in a criminal matter will be much lower than in a comparative civil matter."

Sinanan said one of the things the authority is considering is implementing a "means test" for persons applying for legal aid representation in criminal matters.

"If we decrease the number of persons receiving legal aid in criminal matters, then the criminal practice can become a little more lucrative because currently there is no means test implemented with regard to qualifying for legal aid representation in criminal matters. So what you have is that persons who have significant means are in fact still requesting and obtaining legal aid in criminal matters."

In April, Parliament passed the Legal Aid and Advice Amendment Act, which raised the ceiling for persons seeking legal aid from a disposable annual income of $7,000 to $36,000. The disposable capital ceiling was also increased from $5,000 to $20,000.

During debate of the bill, then justice minister Herbert Volney said the LAAA could decide to waive the income qualifications "in extenuating circumstances" for persons whose income may be in the higher range.

Also increased were the fees payable to attorneys appearing for persons under the Legal Aid system.

"The fees were increased in May this year, from between $7,500 and $10,000 to between $15,000 and $20,000; and, in cases of lengthier, complex matters, a threshold of a further $10,000 to cover the entire trial could be paid," Sinanan said.

Among the new measures implemented at the LAAA is a Duty Council Scheme.

"This is where persons who are arrested in relation to capital matters (murders) and minors who are arrested are entitled to legal representation immediately upon their arrest.

"Prior to May of this year, you would have only gotten representation after you were charged. But now these persons can receive representation immediately. In fact, under the Act, a police officer arresting a person on suspicion of a capital offence, or a minor, must immediately contact the Legal Aid Call Centre, which is 652-LAAA (652-5222), and give the name of the person and the station where they have been taken and the nature of the offence.

"The call centre will, in turn, contact one of the Duty Council attorneys from a special panel, who will then visit the station and consult with the client, even if it is after normal working hours or during the weekend or on public holidays."

Sinanan said the attorney will also attend the first hearing of the matter at the magistrates' court or until bail is either granted or denied in appropriate cases. Thereafter, if the person requires legal aid representation for the trial itself, an application must then be made.

Sinanan revealed the number of in-house attorneys will soon be increased from 20 to 30. He said this necessitated the LAAA having to locate adequate accommodation for its staff.

"I have only this month managed to secure premises to move the head office because that has been the dire need of the authority for years now. The conditions at the corner of Oxford and Edward Streets (in Port of Spain) are really deplorable. We have been able to secure a new premises at the TTMA (Trinidad and Tobago Manufacturers' Association) building in Barataria, which would allow us to operate in a more comfortable environment."

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