It took just three sessions—one in the House of Representatives and two in the Senate—for the Administration of Justice (Indictable Proceedings) Bill to be debated and passed by Parliament. This is significant since the bill, piloted by Justice Minister Herbert Volney, required the support of at least three-fifths of the members of each House to be passed. However, the fact that it received unanimous support does not make this an example of parliamentary efficiency or effectiveness. What is now clear is that there were legal loopholes, completely overlooked during the speedy passage of that legislation through both Houses of Parliament, which may result in the accused in several criminal cases arising out of the Piarco Airport development scandal walking free. There are now calls for the act to go back to Parliament for amendment. However, that will take time and since the most glaring of the legislation’s loopholes, Section 34, was proclaimed on August 31, there is enough of a window for the Piarco cases to be brought to an end. In just a few days, all of the accused, prominent among them businessmen Steve Ferguson and Ishwar Galbaransingh, may be declared not guilty on the ground of delay.
That was not immediately obvious when the bill was introduced for debate last November. What was highlighted then was that it would provide a new system of pre-trial proceedings for indictable offences that would replace the time-consuming preliminary enquiries. When Justice Minister Volney introduced the bill for debate last November, he said Clause 34 would free the court system of cases that are suffering for want of prosecution. He said a lot of judicial time was spent hearing applications for staying indictments and for quashing indictments on the basis of delay and the provision would do away with that legal hindrance. Only a few members contributed to the debate—five in Parliament, including the Justice Minister, and ten in the Upper House—and in the end they all supported the bill. As is now painfully clear with this matter, the devil is in the details. Very little time was spent debating Clause 34 and the few concerns raised were quickly swept away with the result that the Piarco cases, as well as others not yet identified, may come to a swift and unsatisfactory end.
Unfortunately, this act is just one example of recently-introduced legislation that creates problems as well as solving them. In a Parliament filled with a disproportionate number of lawyers, this is surprising and disturbing. Just a few days before that bill came up for debate in Parliament, there had been a marathon session on the DNA Bill. That legislation, also piloted by Mr Volney, contained a contentious clause requiring rape victims to be mandatorily tested. Luckily, that was picked up and challenged by members of the Senate and the offending provision was removed. Unfortunately, that was not the case with the Data Protection Act, legislation which could adversely affect the freedom of the press. The public hardly noticed when it was passed in the Lower House on February 11 and in the Upper House on May 24 last year. While not originally intended to silence the media, some of the provisions of this act could undermine press freedom to the extent that several forms of journalism, including investigative reporting, would no longer be possible in Trinidad and Tobago. These recent developments underscore the importance of thorough debate of matters before Parliament. It is essential that parliamentarians properly explore bills, down to the finest details. The debate and the committee stage on these items are important for weeding out, or correcting provisions in laws which could adversely affect large numbers of citizens.