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