Attorney General Reginald Armour. File photo/Jeff K Mayers
ATTORNEYS representing the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) are demanding that Attorney General Reginald Armour apologise and retract his criticism against the office.
Some 16 attorneys delivered a two-page letter to Armour’s secretary on Wednesday afternoon, moments after DPP Roger Gaspard met with Armour for about three hours at Armour’s Richmond Street, Port of Spain office.
The attorneys detailed how Armour’s critique was unfounded as their supposed sub-par performance stemmed from an issue of staff shortage, something raised with him last year when he met with them and promised to address.
Last Saturday, Armour issued a statement via WhatsApp saying the DPP’s office was under-performing. His comment was a direct response to Gaspard’s saying his office has 58 attorneys, some with little or no court experience, and was hamstrung by “an acute and chronic” staff shortage that affected its ability to prosecute cases in every court in the country.
Armour said: “That is an unsatisfactory explanation for under-performance of the DPP. Other critical arms of the criminal justice system are also operating below capacity, yet far more effectively. We need to critically examine what are the systemic issues that are hampering the performance of the DPP’s office.”
The attorneys recalled a meeting with Armour on July 13 last year at the DPP’s office at Winsure Building, Richmond Street, Port of Spain. During that meeting they, said, the AG was told of the issues affecting the DPP’s office, with the understanding that they would be duly addressed.
“Following this meeting, there was a press release from the Office of the Attorney General which posited, ‘The Honourable Attorney General reiterated his commitment to the office of the DPP and assured respect would be maintained. He emphasised that discussions such as these were the first of many to come, with the objective of giving further support and enhancing available resources.’
“The recent statements in the public domain appear to contradict this earlier assurance.”
Attorneys: We’re overworked
The attorneys said in order to meet the demands of the job with limited human resources, they regularly worked long hours even on weekends and public holidays.
“This has severely impacted not only our personal and family lives, but also our mental and emotional health.
“Many staff members have also fallen physically ill as a result of the extreme stress under which we operate on a daily basis. As such, we vehemently reject the notion that the Office of the DPP is underperforming.
“We call upon you to issue a public apology to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and retraction of these unfounded claims.”
They detailed that the workload had increased owing to more murder cases and the introduction of case-management conferences and bail hearings for murder accused.
They said attorneys were forced to divide their time and efforts between trials courts, bail courts and Masters courts.
Additionally, with increased High Court judges and specialised courts, senior magistrates-court attorneys have to be elevated to prosecute in the High Court, creating an increased workload for magistrates-court attorneys, who have to carry a caseload of in excess of 120 matters.
They wrote: “We, the state attorneys of the office of the DPP, formally express our disappointment with these comments. They do not accurately reflect the efforts and commitment of the staff at this office. These statements present a distorted view of the existing reality and are likely to undermine public confidence in this Office.”
Newsday contacted Law Association president Sophia Chote, SC, who said the council will have to be informed about the letter before it can comment. Public relations officer for the Criminal Bar Association Wayne Sturge said the same thing when contacted.
Calls to both Gaspard and Armour yesterday went unanswered.
The attorneys also addressed the directive to vacate their current location and migrate to Park Street where the State spent over $40 million on a building that was renovated and leased for the past three years. This directive, they said, “serves as a further blow to our physical and mental well-being.”
During a public meeting last Thursday, the day after Gaspard spoke of his staff limitations, the Prime Minister said there were other agencies that were starved for resources, and called on the DPP to “make the most with what you have.”
He said the Government sought to assist the DPP by providing a building but, after three years, the building remained unoccupied.
In 2020 the National Infrastructure Development Company (NIDCO) had a ceremonial handing-over of the $24 million, six-storey building on the corner of Park and Henry Street. The building has floors allocated for the DPP’s executive secretariat, administrative and support units, processing units and units for indictment and vault usage. It was leased for roughly $7 million annually.
The delay in occupying it was caused by security concerns raised by the Special Branch, which asked for the glass to be bullet-proofed.
The prosecutors wrote: “Given the fact that the Special Branch Unit is specialised in the assessment of a range of security threats for executives, including the President and our own knowledge of the location of that building, we, the attorneys, are unwilling to occupy the Park Court Building, where we are likely to be the subjects of criminal attacks. This is especially so as many of us have already suffered the trauma of perilous encounters with accused persons, their associates and families.”
The DPP’s office was moved from the Matco Building, a stone’s throw away from the proposed site, owing to security and other concerns.
Head of the Criminal Bar Association Israel Khan, SC, said Gaspard and the attorneys were right in not relocating.
“He (Gaspard) can’t go in that building there, he is endangering his life. They (the Government) have to get better housing for him” Khan said, adding that Gaspard’s life is in constant danger and therefore the concerns should be taken seriously.
During a media conference last Friday, Opposition Senator Wade Mark accused the Prime Minister of attacking the DPP supposedly for failing to prosecute his political opponents.
“Is he trying to frustrate Gaspard into leaving the Office of the DPP? What is the objective of the Prime Minister?” Mark questioned.
Mark’s accusation comes after Gaspard discontinued corruption charges against former prime minister Basdeo Panday, his wife Oma, former government minister Carlos John and businessman Ishwar Galbaransingh.
The four were charged in 2005. The Pandays were charged with corruptly receiving money while John and Galbaransingh were charged with corruptly giving £25,000 to the couple.
It was alleged that John and Galbaransingh gave Panday the money as an inducement or reward in relation to the Piarco airport expansion project. The case was one of four that stemmed from the project in which members and supporters of the UNC were charged.
Two days after the discontinuation, Gaspard explained his decision on a radio programme and detailed how his office was short-staffed, leading to Dr Rowley, Armour and Mark’s comments.
Lutchmedial: Armour ‘tactless and out-of-touch’
Opposition Senator Jayanti Lutchmedial is endorsing the call by attorneys at the DPP’s office for Armour to apologise for his criticism of it.
Speaking with Newsday on Wednesday, Lutchmedial, herself a former attorney in the DPP’s office, said the accusation by Armour that the DPP’s office was under-performing was tactless and showed how out-of-touch he was.
“The remarks were ill-advised, disrespectful and showed a complete lack of understanding of the role that prosecutors play. He showed how out of touch he is for those who work in the criminal justice system.”
She added that, as a leader, Armour was expected to show some level of interest in the challenges faced by those he purports to lead. As head of the ministry, she said, on which the DPP “unfortunately finds itself” having to rely for resources, Armour’s “despicable descent to the level of criticising the office with constitutional remit to institute criminal proceedings is unforgivable.”
Lutchmedial, who spent six years at the DPP’s office, said the language of the AG and other comments on political platforms seem to be an attempt to undermine Gaspard’s office.
“As someone who understands the difficult task of being a prosecutor, I would like to see this government stop shirking its responsibility and act in the best interest of the people of this county who deserve a modern, well-equipped and resourced prosecution to deliver justice.”
She highlighted that the last time there was such a public contemptuous relationship between an attorney general and DPP was when Geoffrey Henderson “was forced to stand his ground” against John Jeremie, who sought to have him bring charges against former prime minister Basdeo Panday.
Armour could not be contacted for a response.