Sunday 21st September, 2008

 
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Ray of hope

In the midst of all the doom and gloom, crashing financial markets and slap in the face of the law by the Prime Minister (who transformed a cultural show into a PNM rally), a ray of hope broke through the dark clouds last week.

I refer to the inaugural speech of our new Chief Justice Ivor Archie at the opening of the 2008/2009 law term.

Archie likened his annual report to that of an annual “report to shareholders.” This is a major shift in the attitude and philosophy of the judiciary. After all, our courts are, in fact, there to serve the people, and it should properly account to them.

His speech was more like a conversation with the nation, and his delivery was measured and effective. His grasp of the problems facing our legal system was evident, and he was in command of the lion in the arena.

In some respects, the CJ traversed familiar ground with renewed vigour and enthusiasm.

The abolition of preliminary inquiries in criminal matters, avoiding transportation of prisoners and the consequent waste of money and judicial time, when their cases are not ready and must be adjourned, removal of traffic tickets and liquor licensing duties from magistrates have been on the cards for quite sometime.

Mention of these initiatives was, for example, made in the report of the Lord Mackay Commission of Enquiry into the Administration of Justice in 2000.

Change has been slow but sure in the legal system. The civil side is far more advanced than the criminal side, and this has been recognised. Video conference hearings before trials are ready would avoid the need to transport prisoners unnecessarily.

Good research

The audio-digital recording project is a success and long-hand note-taking will, hopefully, soon disappear. The infrastructure of the courts has been slowly, but surely, improving as new buildings have been constructed, old ones renovated and technology incorporated.

The Family Court is a huge success. No mention was made, however, of the much-touted DNA lab and the backlog at the Forensic Science Centre, which delays so many criminal cases.

The emphasis by CJ Archie on the need for constitution reform and solid witness protection is welcome. It is true that our constitution is over 30 years old and in need of review.

I do, however, have a problem with the repeated calls for “consultations with all stakeholders,” because this is normally used by politicians as an opportunity to hold poorly attended meetings all over the country, rehashing and regurgitating the same old ideas and arguments.

We have had more than our fair share of constitutional commissions and reports.

We had the Sir Hugh Wooding Commission in 1971-1974, the Sir Issac Hyatali Commission in 1987-1990, papers from Lloyd Best and Tapia, the Vision 2020 sub-committee on constitution reform and the report compiled by our independent senators during the period of the 18/18 tie.

Many good research papers have been published. To add to the stock, we recently had the publication an excellent book that was co-authored by one of our present judges in the Court of Appeal: Democracy and Constitution Reform in Trinidad and Tobago, by Dr Kirk Meighoo and Peter Jamadar, JA.

I hope the Prime Minister will not misuse the valid observation of the CJ to start a fresh round of “consultation” on constitution reform, so that this political football can be dragged into the mud until it just disappears.

The fact of the matter is the ideas have always been there, but the political will has never been.

Real change

The call for a review of the remuneration package of judges and magistrates and support staff is one that the Government must heed.

Since “money is no problem,” the Government should make a tangible gesture in this regard.

The pension of many of our retired judges is ridiculously low. Inflation has virtually rendered them penniless. In some cases, the widow and children have been left to fend for themselves when they should be enjoying the fruits of their late husband/father’s sacrifice.

Judges cannot practise law after retirement, and the pensions are not linked to inflation, so accepting judicial appointment is a potential ticket to future poverty.

Whilst the CJ was right to mention the fact that judges are overworked and suffering from burnout, so, too, are attorneys who now have to work twice as hard to ensure the endless deadlines that come with the new rules of court are met.

There was no attempt to say how judges will be evaluated or have their performance monitored. Some judges may work harder than others, and the public is entitled to know that their efforts will be recognised and rewarded.

The judiciary must at least strive for some target date/period by which judgments must be delivered (within six months after trial?).

Finally, the CJ should have avoided borrowing the political vocabulary of the PM by seemingly endorsing Vision 2020 as a template or time line for developmental change.

Overall, though, CJ Archie left me feeling hopeful that our legal system was in good hands, and that his stewardship will bring positive and real change.

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