Last update: 06-Dec-2013 7:28 am
Friday, December 06, 2013
Trinidad & Tobago Guardian Online
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Appeal Court Too Slow
With the 2013/2014 law term set to open this morning, concerns have been raised in some legal quarters over the Court of Appeal’s delay in handing down judgments in some important criminal appeals.
There has long been concern over the huge backlog of cases passing through the courts, and new rules for handling criminal cases are awaiting implementation. The extra staff needed to put the new plan into practice has not been acquired or trained by the due date of August 2, however, and no new deadline has been set. No comment has been forthcoming from the judiciary or the Government on the reason for the failure to put the new arrangements in place.
Legal sources highlighted three cases that were heard during the last law term, in which the Appeal Court judges reserved their decisions. Another case is that of a convicted murderer, whose appeal over the safety of his conviction, considering new evidence of his mental state, has been pending for almost three years. Checks at the Court of Appeal Registry, Hall of Justice, Port-of-Spain, on Friday showed that dates for judgments in the four outstanding appeals are yet to be announced.
While questioning the delay in the judgments, last week, a senior legal source said it was especially strange considering the last law term had the smallest number of criminal appeals for several years. The exact statistics of number of criminal trials heard and appeals filed and disposed of by the judiciary during the last law term are expected to form part of the Chief Justice’s annual report, which will be published after today’s ceremonial opening.
According to statistics from last year’s report, there was a gradual decrease in the number of criminal appeals filed over the past six years, with 16 being filed in the 2011/2012 law term. However, the statistics showed that the Appeal Court has disposed of approximately the same number of criminal appeals each year for the past six years, with an annual average of 26 cases.
Chief Justice Ivor Archie led the Appeal Court panel for all the highlighted appeals except the Monos Island case. The untimely passing of appellate judge Wendell Kangaloo in July cannot be blamed for the delay, as he did not sit on any of the four appeal panels. Another source who spoke to the T&T Guardian attributed the decline in criminal appeals to a low conviction rate in the Port-of-Spain and San Fernando High Courts and the slow rate which cases are brought to trial.
The T&T Guardian’s records show that only three people were convicted of murder in the Port-of-Spain Assizes during the last law term, with the San Fernando court recording slightly higher statistics. In the Court Performance section of last year’s report, the judiciary said the criminal division of the High Court was being affected by a “complex combination of external factors.” The report said trials were becoming increasingly convoluted by preliminary and secondary applications.
“In addition, because of the chronic shortage of experienced attorneys at the Criminal Defence Bar, once there are one or two large multiple-accused trials in progress, it is difficult to keep the work of the other criminal courts going,” Page 11 of the report said. The report suggested the implementation of the Administration of Justice (Indictable Offences) Act of 2011 and the new Criminal Proceedings Rules were possible solutions to the backlog in the criminal courts.
In one of the four long-drawn-out appeal cases, two convicted drug traffickers asked the Appeal Court to determine whether the 25-year mandatory minimum sentence for drug trafficking can be considered cruel, unusual and arbitrary punishment. In that appeal, heard in July last year, Barry Francis and Roger Hinds asked a special five-member appeal panel to interpret the sentence prescribed under Section 5 (5) of the Dangerous Drugs Act (as amended in 2000). The Criminal Bar Association intervened as an interested party.
Also that month, the Appeal Court heard the appeal of 33-year-old David Donald, who was challenging his conviction for the 2002 murder of taxi driver Ramesh Seelochan. Donald’s attorney contended that his client was not given a fair trial, since he was barred from attending for a short period after he was accused of throwing peanuts at jurors. The judgment was also reserved by the appeal court. Another case is that of six men convicted of the $700 million Monos Island drug and arms bust from 2005.
Last is the case of Lester Pittman, who was convicted in 2004, along with Daniel Agard, of the 2001 murders of agricultural consultant John Cropper, his mother-in-law Maggie Lee and sister-in-law Lynette Lithgow-Pearson.
Both men appealed, with the Court of Appeal ordering a retrial for Agard while dismissing Pittman’s case. In 2010, the Privy Council, quashed Pittman’s conviction and sent the case back to the appeal court to consider the safety of the conviction, considering new evidence which suggested Pittman had a diminished mental capacity. Judgement was also reserved in Pittman’s case. Agard was sentenced to hang for the triple murder at the conclusion of his retrial last Friday.
The Administration of Justice (Indictable Offences) Act of 2011, which seeks to address the backlog by replacing preliminary inquiries in the magistrates court with sufficiency hearings before a High Court master, was due to be implemented in August. However, the pilot project was deferred after lawyers raised concerns over several elements of the controversial legislation earlier this year, as reported by the T&T Guardian.
While the implementation of the legislation has been delayed, the judiciary has already begun using its new Criminal Proceedings Rules, which aim to streamline criminal trials in much the same way the Civil Proceeding Rules of 1998 revolutionised civil litigation. The new rules, part of which replaces lengthy oral submissions with written statements, are being used for the first time in the trial of a dozen men charged with kidnapping and murdering Chaguanas businesswoman Vindra Naipaul-Coolman.
Case management hearings for the trial were held before Justice Malcolm Holdip in the Port-of-Spain Third Assizes during the last law term. The State is expected to start leading evidence in the case this week. Contacted yesterday, Attorney General Anand Ramlogan said he would address all concerns regarding the judiciary after Archie’s speech.
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