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Volney: Justice will be swift
Q: Minister Volney, how was Christmas day for you?
A: (Seated at a table at the back porch of his Hilltop, Champs Fleurs, home Tuesday afternoon) I am not one to enjoy this occasion as most others do. My father died when I was 12 years old on December 23, and laid to rest on Christmas Eve in Dominica. Since then it has not been a time so much for celebration but for reflection on where I have come from. So I know what it is to struggle in life and I am determined to give of my best in whatever assignment that has been thrust upon me or what I have assigned myself.
I imagine it is that kind of determination with which you are approaching your portfolio?
I have two portfolios, one is to serve my constituents in St Joseph, which is my primary task as a parliamentary representative and secondly I have a national responsibility at the level of a ministerial portfolio.
OK. The president of the Law Association Senior Counsel Dana Seetahal has described your ministry as a “make-up” one in that it comprises elements of the Legal Affairs Ministry, the Ministry of the Attorney General and the Ministry of National Security. Is that a fair assessment?
I guess that could be said of all new ministries. They get their component parts… you know if you look at Gender Affairs it came from the Ministry of Planning and so on. So it is how you see it, how you view it and obviously someone had to be dealing with criminal justice administration from the point of view of governance. I don’t see any duplication or overlapping with my ministry and any other. The Ministry of the Attorney General and the Justice ministry have now settled down to sharing what was largely the portfolio of the AG. The problem is that in the past, under the office of the Attorney General, the criminal justice system suffered. You had a number of attorneys general who were on the civil side of the practice and this side advanced at the expense of the criminal side. Now that I am the Minister of Justice with the portfolio of the administration of criminal justice and transformation, I can tell you that in the first term of my office the public would see a significant difference and the reasons for creating this ministry as the way forward.
Mr Volney, one of the stronger points of the PP campaign in the May 24, 2010, general election was that the criminal justice system needed to be speeded up but after more than 18 months we are yet to see this happening...
(A Ministry of National Security helicopter flying past. I pause for the helicopter.) I never determined that overnight there would have been significant difference because we have to deal with problems in a twofold attack mode. The first is to change the system in order to make them smart and efficient and secondly is to expand the facilities in order to deal with 21st century volume of work. What I found were archaic systems and totally inefficient and rundown plants.
At what level?
All levels. The Hall of Justice would have probably been the last building of any significance to have been constructed in the criminal justice system. Some Magistrate courts and the Tobago Hall of Justice in Scarborough were built but that Tobago edifice is inadequate for the needs of Tobago and we are looking at expanding in order to make Tobago far more efficient than it is presently in terms of the court plant. One very important feature of speeding up the criminal justice system is that we have passed legislation eliminating preliminary inquiries which has not yet been proclaimed because there are certain things which have to be put in place.
For example, Masters of the Supreme Court which is the first step you also have to have a period of training for police officers and officers in the office of the DPP.
Why are these taking so long to implement?
We first had to decide on the system that Trinidad and Tobago wanted which involved several stake holders’ consultation, that is why when the bill went to parliament it was so widely received and accepted and passed unanimously in both Houses of the Parliament. So all that needs to be done is the signing of the proclamation which would be done within the next three months by which time I anticipate the Chief Justice and the Judicial and Legal Services Commission would have appointed the Masters of the Supreme Court.
Mr Volney, this administration has also passed anti-gang legislation to deal with the untenable crime situation but why is it so hard to pass legislation mandating two strikes or three and you are out—no questions asked… straight jail for certain types of criminal offences especially those committed with firearms?
Actually we have such a system. The problem is that the detection rate is so low so that persons who already have one strike are not being detected and convicted. The law is there are two strikes and you are out. Most of the persons who already have one strike and waiting to be convicted on the second one are not being detected and we are talking largely about firearms, drug offences and so on. What I can say, too, Clevon, is that when persons are charged they do not get bail contrary to what most people think or say.
Mr Minister, there is a perception that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor and I am using the Ish and Ferguson matter simply because it is current and by no means passing judgement on the guilt or innocence of these men as the matter is still before the court...
How can you explain that perception?
(Taking a sip of coffee which he prepared himself and a slice of fruit cake) Well, the reality of life not just in Trinidad and Tobago but throughout the world, is that those who have the resources can avail themselves of the law that allows them to test not just the accusation against them, but also the system by which they are brought before the court and the system by which they are kept within the courts, and everyone is entitled to use whatever avenue is available to defend themselves.
So Mr Volney, the maxim which says one law for the poor and another for the rich is technically correct?
(Gesticulating with hands apart) Throughout the world. It is a reality; the man who has the resources to take every legal point is going to take every legal point and the man who does not, will not take every legal point. But at the same time what could happen is that when the state comes up against the man who can afford to take every legal point the state would usually provide the prosecution very qualified and senior counsel to prosecute the matter.
But you know, Mr Raphael, what we have had here in that particular case is a total bungling of the prosecution from the early stages right through to the present…
Mr Minister you are making a very serious allegation there you know.
(Raising his voice and in an angry tone) It is a very serious charge and I will tell you why I say it is a very serious charge! But do not tell me that you hired an English QC and because he is unavailable for ten months in the year broken up into small parts that you must continue to use him to prosecute your case. When adjournments are taken they should be taken from week to week and not from month to month and sometimes one month to five months. That shows a lack of determination to prosecute in a timely way. And that is why I say that case was bungled by the PNM and the then attorney general.
Mr Minister, you are now engaging in partisan politics and I am not here dealing with politics you do understand?
(Protesting) No. I am dealing with politics now, because you see you have to have the will, the political will to prosecute certain cases.
Aren’t they two separate things—the politics and administration of justice Mr Minister, and aren’t you also accusing the then political directorate of bungling that matter?
Well, Mr Raphael, the last attorney general was the man who was in charge. He is the man who hired the English QC, who would come here and spend most if his time I am told, in Tobago, you know… Who came for his holidays and when he was here would spend two days in the court and back in the next five months.
You are suggesting that then AG John Jeremie fell down on this particular job?
Absolutely! That’s why the people removed them. (Adjusting his glasses) I campaigned against John Jeremie and his administration of justice...criminal justice in particular. Something like that would never happen under the watch of our present Attorney General.
So, Mr Minister, what can or what is this administration doing to prevent a recurrence of a similar kind?
Well, this administration has passed the bill to abolish preliminary inquiries so run high or run low you will be put on trial within a year or two years and certainly within ten years. I tried to have it within seven years in the legislation but I didn’t have my way. Is now for the DPP to take advantage of the new system and to work with the judiciary in getting these matters. You see the whole purpose of the new purpose-built courts... those courts will concentrate on the old matters and the rest on the new matters coming into the system. So that justice will be swift.
One of the contributing factors to the crime situation Mr Volney is the lack of enforcement of the relevant laws...people are committing crimes because they are not being prosecuted even for minor offences such as urinating in public?
Bathing by the stand pipe in Maraval is an offence! As children we had to run from the water police when we attempted to bathe under a standpipe.
Why is there this apparent lax in enforcing the laws of the land?
(Calming down) Well it broke down under the PNM.
Wait, you come back on the PNM's case again?
I have to. I must.
You are not on an election platform you know, Mr Minister?
I know that but unlike the Attorney General I am a politician and I will put blame where it properly lays. This whole thing broke down over the last ten years. Total disrespect.
You think it was deliberately done?
No. It was allowed to happen and no one put down their foot and said enough is enough and when you have a magistrate court system that is overburdened, when you have simple matters being adjourned every ten days to come back when there is no chance the matter being heard. One simple blow we made in that legislative intervention and we have freed up the hands of magistrates by as much has 30 per cent on their lists. And when the new PI legislation kicks in the magistrate will have as much as 40 to 50 per cent less work when they enter the court. So they will be able concentrate on all these matters like driving on the bus route without a PBR pass.
Mr Minister, how was the transition from the judiciary to being a minister of government?
I know what is required, I consult, and I have an excellent relationship with both the Chief Justice and the Attorney General.
It was a bit rocky at the beginning wasn’t it?
Yes. (A mischievous smile) At the beginning but he (the Chief Justice) has forgiven me (bursts out laughing) and in the true sense of forgiveness I accepted his forgiveness and we work smoothly together. In fact I made him know we are building the courts for him, we are changing the law for the judiciary. I never look back but the only regret I had was that I could have been a little choosier in my use of English and my words in my first budget speech when I encroached on certain territory and I have learnt from that and you can rest assured it would not happen again.
You are referring to your attack on the Judiciary?
Well, my perceived attack but it really was not the intention and as a politician I am only now coming into my own in the legislature. We have a lot of good bills we have been incubating over the last 18 months.
Finally, Mr Minister, what are some of the projects we can expect from the Ministry in 2012?
By the second week of January, I anticipate requests for proposals will go out for the construction of new courts, ok? Under the design, finance and construct system and in an open and transparent way. The Tunapuna complex is unsuitable for those courts and a new complex will be constructed on the Uriah Butler Highway, the legislation that is going to be passed will come into effect such as electronic monitoring, DNA to help in the prosecution of certain court cases you will also have a legal aid system that is well oiled so there is no reason why we cannot get the system speeded up. In the interim I am having my people look at buildings to rent for four high courts until the new centres come on stream.
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