AG’s Ministry: Training public defenders will improve delivery of justice

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Minister in the Minister of the Attorney General Renuka Sagramsingh-Sooklal –

MINISTER in the Office of the Attorney General Renuka Sagramsingh-Sooklal expects a better delivery of justice by way of a workshop for 30 local public defenders, led by their more experienced US counterparts, which she launched on Wednesday.

She said the training should improve both the well-being of marginalised citizens seeking legal representation and the running of the criminal justice system.

The three-day exercise – the advanced trial advocacy programme – is being held at the Waterfront Judicial Centre, Tower D, Wrightson Road, Port of Spain. Several US attorneys, each typically with at least two-three decades of experience as public defenders, will train attorneys from the fairly new Public Defenders’ Department.

While the Legal Aid and Advisory Authority (LAAA), when set up in 1976, had to source individual private attorneys willing to represent criminal defendants who could not afford to pay private attorneys, under the LAAA the Public Defenders Department (since established in 2020) now provides its own staff of defence attorneys to clients.

Sagramsingh-Sooklal said the the unit was set up to help those who cannot afford representation and to reduce the delay/backlog in criminal cases in the courts.

“Your dedication to developing strong advocates aligns perfectly with our vision for a fair and just legal system.

“It is with no doubt that your advocacy capabilities will be significantly enhanced after this event.”

She underlined the importance of public defenders.

“I raise my voice not so that I can shout, but so that others without a voice can be heard.”

The department ensures equal access to justice for all citizens and upholds the rights of the marginalised and underprivileged, Sagramsingh-Sooklal said.

She hoped attorneys would not see the workshop as a one-off event but would commit to a culture of life-long learning as legal professionals.

Sagramsingh-Sooklal said trial advocacy was the art of effective persuasion.

“It is the backbone of our legal system, empowering legal professionals to champion the cause of their clients with passion, excellence and expertise.”

She reflected on four benefits of strong advocacy to the legal system.

Firstly, effective representation comes about by lawyers advocating for their clients’ rights, towards a just and favourable outcome.

Secondly, overall justice is served when diligent and passionate advocacy allows courts to reach well-informed decisions on the merits of the case and application of the law.

Thirdly, strong advocacy helps to streamline court proceedings by focusing on essential issues, coherent evidence and persuasive arguments.

Fourthly, dedicated advocates empower their clients to navigate the complexities of the legal system with confidence and renewed strength.

Sagramsingh-Sooklal urged the local attorneys present to make full use of the training to afford their clients the best-quality legal representation.

She related a humorous personal anecdote from her legal mentor, the late Theodore Guerra, SC, recalling the words of his grateful client upon being freed, to the shock of his representative: “Boss, you were so good, I and all didn’t believe I thief the goat.”

Chief Public Defender Hasine Shaikh said her department was responsible for 1,300 cases at the High Court. The department handles 75 per cent of legally-aided cases in the legal system, she said. Shaikh later told reporters that from September 2022-July 2023, her department had completed 154 cases in the High Court.

More widely, since the department was set up in March 2020, it has handled 258 cases in the High Court.

She urged her attorneys to make the best of the workshop.

“It’s going to be some long days. Ask every question. Leave no stone unturned.”

The US public defenders each introduced themselves, stating their years of legal experience at state or federal level and/or in private practice, and offered tips.

Joseph Croft, “a preacher’s kid” from Philadelphia, advised the young attorneys heading into the workshop, “Step out of your comfort zone.”

Fredlyn “Freddie” Caesar, an anti-death penalty advocate, advised, “Stretch your wings a bit.” She said the workshop “was a safe place to be dangerous, because the courtroom is a dangerous place to be safe.”

Cynthia Roseberry of the ACLU shared her personal mantra, “Justice is love.”

She advised workshop participants, “Take off your jacket and open your heart as we do this work. I look forward together to doing justice for love.”

Kimberly Moore, a former federal prosecutor turned public defender, recalled visiting TT in the past to work with the Director of Public Prosecutions’ Office to encourage plea-bargaining negotiations in criminal cases.

Reflecting on now being a federal public defender, she declared, “I am a voice for those who do not have it.”