Tuesday 21st January marked the opening of the assizes at Kingstown’s High Court. Amidst the arraignments and, loosely defined, jury orientation that marked the first official business day of the most serious locally available Court, came a quiet yet profound observation from defence attorney Grant Connell.
“We often say justice delayed is justice denied, but what of those who can’t access justice?” Connell queried.
His comments came as Justice Brian Cottle took leave to inform several of the accused appearing before him of procedural matters, in particular the benefit of a guilty plea if it comes down to sentencing.
“… This is not meant to make you do anything you don’t want to do…” Justice Cottle prefaced his comment to each defendant as they admitted to not having or being able to afford a lawyer. “Persons who plead guilty, at the first opportunity, on charges such as these benefit from a discount in sentencing of up to one third. So if you, for example, were going to get a 3 year sentence on this charge, and you were to plead guilty today, the Court would take off one of those 3 years. That’s one third, so that you only get 2 years sentence.
So if you, for example, were going to get a 3 year sentence on this charge, and you were to plead guilty today, the Court would take off one of those 3 years. That’s one third, so that you only get 2 years sentence.
Like I said it is not meant to pressure you to do anything that you don’t want to do…” Cottle told co-defendants Clifton Williams and Douglas Baptiste who are together charged along with Adrian Sherman (who failed to appear) for robbing and wounding Jerry Jardine sometime in May 2018.
“It’s been indicated by the president of the bar that we are trying to establish legal aid this year… what I’m concerned about… Judge Cottle, every assizes – and I’m sure it pains him – he asks eighty (80) per cent of the accused ‘do you have a lawyer? No. Why?’ It’s financial,” Connell told the Court as he addressed welcoming remarks to Justice AngelicaTeelucksingh.
Connell further committed to assisting in a major fundraising drive to help bring the advent of legal aid to fruition. He told ANN “to get off the ground we would need office space and man power but it has to be sustained. Once we get going resources would come. Funds are out there.
Once there is accountability and results I am sure there are people out there who would support it.” Armed with a rough estimate of XCD15, 000.00 as starting capital, Connell welcomed the fundraising challenge saying “It can work… What we have to do as lawyers is to help rebuild the pillars of our society.”
In Court, Connell highlighted the profusion of prosecutors pointing out to the Justices the outnumbered defence attorneys as symptomatic of a deeply rooted cause for concern regarding access to justice by the poor.
His brief remarks would foreshadow an announcement by Prime Minister Dr. Gonsalves, who at a media briefing later that morning said “We have two permanent criminal Courts which would be running simultaneously…” The second Court is to be housed upstairs the MarCole Plaza, in Kingstown, and is to be presided over by Justice Teelucksingh. This new Court, as P.M Gonsalves pointed out would also get support staff “…inside of the budget, I have more positions for the office of the Director of Public Prosecution – because if I have a second permanent Court I need more prosecutors.”
To Connell’s mind getting the legal aid services off the ground would go a long way towards alleviating the already “strained government resources.” He however noted that access to the services must be streamlined through a process so that the economically disadvantaged could benefit once they “meet the criteria.” The Bar of Association, Connell posits, would have to address the conditions to be satisfied so that persons may access the service.
“It certainly must have something to do with your financial resources but as long as I am around it would never matter your political background…
It cannot be about politics,” he again said to ANN. He also explained that the legal aid service must make allowances to provide help in both civil and criminal matters as opposed to what currently exists. The government, at present, makes some legal aid available in capital cases such as murder trials when necessary.
Connell applauded the Bar of Association’s President Rene Baptiste for her vision and “proven track record of getting things done.” An asset he believes Baptiste brings to the challenge of completing this social venture. Connell also urged other lawyers to get on board, reminding them of the grandiose speeches and lofty pledges made when they were called to the Bar. “They have since disappeared,” he accused, but he remains confident that locally available legal aid can work. “It’s much easier to fix access to justice [discrepancies]” than it is to fix access to medical care Connell noted.
Meanwhile fellow defence attorney Ronnie Marks happily welcomed Justice Teelucksingh to the jurisdiction on behalf of the local Bar of Association, saying “it is something that we see as necessary to assist in the proper administration of justice. For the 20 years I’ve been practising I’ve seen bottlenecks and backlogs and I think it’s a step in the right direction for us to clear that up…”
Marks also said “… we can be more efficient in bringing these matters to Court,” while pointing specifically to “methods of investigation and the way that a case moves from being an allegation to actually being tried before the Court.” He highlighted the flaws in the so called “channel” through which reports must move from the investigator up the Police chain of command and onwards.
This ‘channel,’ Marks said is inefficient at best since said ‘channel’ is not fixed like the Bequia channel sometimes it’s long, sometimes it short… Trinidad and come back other times it’s Young Island. It’s uncertain the way that we’re presently doing it and if we’re going to develop the structure at the top we’re going to have to have the supporting systems at the bottom…”