28 Nov 2019

The Prime Minister and the Judiciary

The Trinidad and Tobago Newsday had a big, bold headline “PM promises justice on time”. The article went on to list some of Dr Rowley’s promises – “the public will see some “drastic changes” in the dispensing of justice”. Some of the changes are:

  1. Cabinet has decided to raise the retirement age of judges from 65 to 70.
  2. 60 additional courts occupying 14 floors at the International Waterfront Centre.
  3. a new system of penalties for traffic violations, namely fixed penalties.

If Dr Rowley thinks that these measures would actually make a difference, he must believe that Trinidad and Tobago is some sort of fairy land. Raising the retirement age of judges from 65 to 70 would merely prolong any incompetence of the judicial bench. Take for example the case of Monica Jane Ramnarine (Appellant) v Chandra Bose Ramnarine (Respondent) [2013] UKPC 27 heard in 2013 at the Privy Council (the Board).

  • The first instance judge Tam J took 4 years and 9 months to begin the hearing.
  • He then took 4 years to deliver an oral judgement from the end of the hearing.
  • He then took a further 1 year and 10 months to deliver an 11-page written judgment.
  • Notice of appeal was immediately given after the written judgement but the case took a further 2 years and 3 months for the appeal to be heard.
  • The Court of Appeal took a further 3 years and 2 months to clarify issues for the further appeal to the Privy Council.

A total of 16 years passed before the case was finally decided, during which time legal cost almost surpassed the cost of the estate involved. Only good manners and judicial restraint kept the Board to “a measured response” [the Board’s words].

Does Dr Rowley wish to keep Tam J on the bench, when in the case of Vishnu Ramdath, he took 6 years to deliver an oral judgement?

On the issue of 60 additional courts, one has to ask the obvious question – where is the staff coming from? Can we expect 60 additional judges plus support staff? Will the judiciary continue to be treated like a stray dog, begging for scraps from central government? In 2009, the cost for salaries and other expenses was $349 million. The judiciary was granted $42.5 million! Essentially, every year the judiciary is strangled for the want of funds, making it dependant on the administrative arm of the State.

In the meantime, people on remand awaiting up to 16 years (just a coincidence, nothing to do with Tam J) for preliminary hearings. Certainly not in keeping with the Rule of Law (speedy enforcement of the law), but who cares? In some cases, the length of time on remand is more than the time a guilty person would have spent imprisoned, had he been found guilty of course.

I am not knocking changes to the system – all and sundry knows that it is sorely needed! The problem is that Dr Rowley cannot seem to see the wood for the trees. There is no quick and easy fix – this is a systemic problem rather than a systematic problem. A holistic approach is needed. Proper funding, proper staffing, enforcement by the police, awareness of rights by both police and judicial officers/lawyers, tighter and more efficient case management system, better record-keeping (boxes of court papers held in private lawyers’ offices?), penalties for lawyers who cause undue delay in case management… All of these and more are needed to really tackle the behemoth that is the judiciary.