AG calls for trial by judge only law – JUSTICE SYSTEM CLOGGED

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

UNCLOG THE SYSTEM: Attorney General Reginald Armour, SC, moving the Second Reading of the Miscellaneous Provisions (Trial by Judge Alone) Bill, 2023 in the Senate on Friday. PHOTO COURTESY OFFICE OF THE PARLIAMENT – Off of the Parl

ATTORNEY General Reginald Armour, SC, expressed grave concern about a staggering 15,132 cases currently clogging the criminal justice system.

He underscored Government’s commitment to clear this backlog and improve efficiency of the system.

Armour made these comments as he opened debate on the Miscellaneous Provisions (Trial By Judge Alone) Bill, 2023 in the Senate on Friday.

He said he was presenting the bill “with a sense of solemn duty and supported by a clear line of judicial authority.” He added the latter included “the pronouncements of our own judges, of our court of appeal.”

While the trial by judge alone approach has brought some relief to the criminal justice system, Armour said, “There has not regrettably been a total relief to our judicial system, to our criminal justice system.”

He provided statistics from the Judiciary to support his argument.

“The criminal case backlog has continued to increase.”

Between August 1, 2021 to July 31, 2023, Armour said, “There were 15,152 cases filed at the district courts, including 160 capital (offence) matters.” Murder is one of many crimes which are defined as capital offences.

There were 200 criminal cases filed at the High Court in Port of Spain, San Fernando and Tobago, in the same period. Armour said 232 cases filed at the court’s family and children’s division, adds to these numbers.

He said as of July 31, 2022, “there were 885 criminal matters pending at the high courts in Port of Spain, San Fernando and Tobago.” On that date, there were 389 cases pending at the family and children’s court.

Armour added, “There are 1,119 defendants in jail awaiting trials.”

After describing these figures as concerning, Armour assured senators that Government has “implemented significant reforms to address the criminal courts backlog.”

He said Government recognises that more needs to be done to address the backlog on a continuing basis.

“Our aim, which we are asking this Senate to join us in, is to continue with all efforts to improve the efficiencies of our criminal justice sector.”

Recalling that trial by judge alone legislation was passed in Parliament in 2017 by a simple majority, Armour said this law has been bearing fruit since then.

“I am pleased to report to this house (Senate) that we have a proven operational system of judge only trials.”

He said information from the Judiciary shows that February 1, 2019 to January 31, 2023, “there have been 59 completed judge alone trials, with 35 now pending.”

Armour added, “On average, during the year 2022, two requests for month were made for judge alone trials.”

In January, there were 13 requests for those trials

Armour said, “These statistics are self-recommending of the success of the 2017 act, that request for judge alone trials are continuing the resumption of trials by jury.”

He recalled the latter were suspended over the last two years because of the covid19 pandemic.

Armour said, “Clearly we are on the correct path to continuing the necessary important improvements to our criminal justice system.”

He said an increasing number of defendants are choosing judge alone instead of jury trials.

“It reduces the length of time that a person has to wait for a trial to begin as there is no jury selection to be done.”

Jury selection, Armour continued, can be lengthy and challenging because people do not come to court “willing to be called as a juror.” He said these people provide many reasons why they cannot serve as a juror.

He also said the bill will amend the law to allow a judge to appoint lay assessors in specialised fields to assist the judge in certain matter, to ensure a fair trial.

Those matters include terrorist financing and money laundering.

Armour said the matters excluded from this provision are indictable offences which are punishable by death.