Government senator: Judge alone trial does not take away right of accused

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

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

Minister in the Ministry of the Attorney General Renuka Sagramsingh-Sooklal said that the provisions to reduce the number of people on a jury contained in the Miscellaneous Provisions (Trial By Judge Alone) Bill, 2023 does not mean that the right of accused people will be denied or reduced.

Major parts of the bill state that: a person shall be judged by judge alone except if they want to be tried by a jury, with the court “so directing in the interests of justice”; the number of jurors be reduced to nine for matters of treason and murder, and six for all other indictable matters; and, the category of special jurors be repealed, with lay assessors (experts in technical matters) assisting judges during trials.

Speaking during debate on the bill in the Senate on Friday, Sagramsingh-Sooklal said she could see why people would be concerned about the phrasing “the court so directing in the interests of justice” but this could be changed in the drafting process.

“The interpretation is not to give the court the opportunity to deny the accused a trial by jury, but to direct the jury trial in the interests of justice. It is not for the court to say yea or nay when the accused exerts his rights.”

She said the constitution does not mention trial by jury but says the accused has the right to a fair trial. She said the modern jury number of 12 people was established under an ancient Welsh king in 725 AD based on the number of Jesus’ disciples.

Sagramsingh-Sooklal said there were practical benefits to selecting a smaller jury. She said there is a cost to each part of selecting a jury. She said often it can take days for 12 people to be chosen.

“If we reduce the numbers, they are still going to be selected from a cross-section of society, with varied social backgrounds, varied economic structures, and bringing their own experiences to the deliberation.”

She said some of the costs associated with picking a jury include having to serve summonses to 72-75 people, which requires police and marshal’s assistance, travel costs, the formation of a national jury list, hearing the jury, food, daycare, transportation costs, and ensuring that jurors are up to date with technology.

“If the interests of justice can be maintained while balancing saving state expenditure, what is wrong with that? In addition, both the defence and the prosecution still have the opportunity to challenge the selection jurors, as well as attempting to sway them to their side.”

Sagramsingh-Sooklal said judge-alone trials are not new to this jurisdiction, as they are common in civil trials, family courts, and magisterial matters.

Mark: A brazen assault on our democracy

Opposition Senator Wade Mark said the UNC would not be supporting the bill and called on government to withdraw it.

“This represents an affront to the intelligence of the people, a brazen assault on our democracy in TT, and a brazen attempt on our constitution.”

He said the common man participates in the justice system by sitting on a jury, but the government wanted to remove that right and put it in the hands of judges.

“If you come to try me in the court, my attorney has to make an application to the judge, who will decide if my application for judge and jury trial will be granted. How can that be real? I must have that right, how that can be taken from me? There are certain rights given by our creator that no living man can take away from me, you want to take away my right to be judged by my peers?”

Mark said reducing the number of jurors meant the jury would be less diverse and less fair to the accused.

“I have in my possession a statement from the Law Association of TT which was sent to the clerk of the court to circulate to Parliament members. In it the association says it is not in support of this particular measure, and their main argument is fairness.”

He noted that as well as abolishing special jurors, the bill exempted more categories of people who will not be able to sit as jurors.

Mark said the AG should not be able to add offences to the bill without it being debated in Parliament. He called on government to do more consultation with stakeholders.

Independent Senator Anthony Vieira, SC, said he did not think the bill was calling for the abolition of jury trials. He said they can be expensive, especially when sequestration is required, and they can be flawed and abused.

“We have to work against a jury of incompetence and make sure that jurors understand their responsibilities. Sometimes we have to get past the jury thinking that the accused must be dangerous, and that’s where the judge comes in with knowing the law.”

He said further consideration should be given to the idea of lay assessors. He called for the bill to be brought to a select committee so that more consultation could be done with stakeholders.

“This bill gives the opportunity to reduce case load and delay. An improved criminal justice system will play an important role in de-escalating the current crime crisis.”