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New Legal Aid HQ still cramped
The Legal Aid and Advisory Authority, a subsidiary of the Ministry of Legal Affairs, is pleading for a more suitable location from which to offer its services, which, according to Israel Khan, SC, chairman of the authority, are “indispensable to the criminal justice system.” He made the plea to representatives of the Legal Affairs Ministry at the commemoration of the 300th meeting of the authority yesterday at its new head office at the T&T Manufacturers Association (TTMA) Building, Barataria.
The meeting was primarily aimed at allowing line minister Prakash Ramadhar to tour the new facilities but he did not show up because of a family emergency after a relative fell ill. “I cannot resist the temptation of requesting that one of these days, in the near future, which for me is before May 24, 2015 (the scheduled date for the next general election), you provide us with a building so that we can provide the legal services to the impoverished citizens,” Khan said.
Although the Barataria office was an improvement over its old Port-of-Spain office at the corner of Oxford and Edward streets, space was still a problem, Khan said. “That old building was really unfit for humans to carry out their duties. We too had our rats, cockroaches and smelly carpets for years and years and years, so we have come a long way, but yet we are over-crammed.” Legal Aid attorneys working at the Barataria office had to juggle offices to meet their clients, he said.
The authority is renting two floors of the TTMA building, which houses approximately 50 people, at a monthly cost of approximately $90,000. Describing the authority as the flagship of the Ministry of Legal Affairs, Khan said it rendered service to thousands of people who could not afford a private lawyer and, according to the rule of law, were innocent until proven guilty.
“We are now in a crisis situation in our country as far as crime is concerned and in order to maintain the rule of law, peace, order and good government, there’s a need for the services of the Legal Aid Authority,” he added. He said the authority had to move toward a Public Defenders Department, an idea that was endorsed by the current government, whereby the department’s lawyers would represent criminal and civil offenders as is the case in other countries.
“The Legal Aid Authority would have its own lawyers and we would not be sending the briefs to outside lawyers in private practice,” he explained. To meet this goal, he added, government support was needed. “We do not have the resources. We do not have money. We have a lot of talent, but we do not have money,” he noted. Around 30 legal officers are employed at the authority, but Khan said that should be increased to 60.