The country was served up another reminder of the many shortcomings in the criminal justice system when Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Roger Gaspard finally broke his silence and responded to criticisms from Chief Justice Ivor Archie.
Mr Gaspard’s response came a week and a half after Archie’s address at the virtual opening of the 2020/21 Law Term when he expressed concern that only 12 indictments had been filed by the DPP’s office in the last term.
The CJ’s warning that T&T’s criminal justice system is in a state of “near collapse owing to factors beyond the Judiciary's control," has been the focus of much discussion in legal circles. But Mr Gaspard took his time in crafting the eight-page statement that he released early yesterday.
His assertion that the CJ’s claim was “spectacularly disingenuous and misleading” has been getting most of the attention, but it is very important that the DPP’s revelations about the many malfunctioning aspects of the justice system are addressed.
According to Mr Gaspard, the very small number of indictments filed last year was an aberration as in previous years there were between 150 and 300 such filings annually.
However, he said, his department is hampered by perennial short staffing, limited office space, institutional and systemic adjustments due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Judiciary's unilateral decision to rely solely on electronic filing.
While the coronavirus has thrown another spanner in the works, the wheels of justice continue to turn very slowly, and recent legislative and operational adjustments have brought about only incremental improvements
The high crime rate still overwhelms the justice system. Inordinate trial delays result in justice delayed and denied, particularly for the hundreds of people who remain remanded in custody for as much as 15 years—a travesty that was highlighted in the groundbreaking series done last year by Guardian Media’s Ria Rambally.
And that is just one aspect of the brokenness in the system.
It is not all bad. The efforts by Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi, Chief Justice Archie, Mr Gaspard and others have resulted in some reforms in criminal justice.
In recent years there has been the introduction of Plea-Bargaining legislation, Criminal Procedure Rules, Maximum Sentence Indication and Cases Management Rules. In addition, courts have been computerised and new processes and procedures and a new administrative and management structure are being developed.
However, the issues that have become a source of contention between the CJ and the DPP expose a very broken system.
As if to underscore the desperate situation that persists with crime and justice in T&T, in just the 24 hours before the DPP’s statement was released, six murders were among the many serious crimes recorded across the country.
That alone should prompt urgent action from the authorities. It is time to focus on fixing these many long-standing administrative and infrastructural failures. Strengthening the rule of law and the capacity to reduce and control crime through justice reform is critically important.
Fix things so that citizens can finally get the justice to which they are entitled.