UNC supports Govt – Bail Bill passed with all MPs saying ‘aye’

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

WE SUPPORT YOU: Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar during debate in the House of Representatives on Monday. The Opposition unanimously supported the amended Bail Bill. PHOTO COURTESY OFFICE OF THE PARLIAMENT – Office of the Parliament

IN A RARE scene, the Opposition gave its support to the Government on the amendment to the Bail Bill which was laid and passed unanimously during the sitting of the House of Representatives on July 1. All 38 MPs voted “aye” in favour of the bill.

Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar expressed her intention to support the bill during her contribution to debate of the bill. She said the Opposition’s support was in the public’s interest.

“This is not a garbage bill. This is a bill which remedies some of the defects in the law which, because of the Akili Charles judgement does give us a balance of proportionality, so we are prepared to support it. This has to do with the public interest of the people of TT,” she said.

The newly-amended bail bill will make provisions for restriction of bail of people charged with serious offences. The bill also provided that people charged under serious offences may also apply under “exceptional circumstances.”

The bill seeks to give effect to the ruling of the Privy Council in the case of Akili Charles against the state in 2022. The judgement empowers a judge or High Court master to set bail to murder accused.

In 2022, the Court of Appeal, comprising Chief Justice Ivor Archie and Justices of Appeal Mira Dean-Amorer and Malcolm Holdip, reversed a High Court decision in a constitutional challenge by Charles.

The court ruled that the Bail act of 1994, which made it impossible for judicial officers to consider bail for someone accused of murder, was unconstitutional.

While saying the Opposition would support the bill, Persad-Bissessar knocked Government for taking too long to approach Parliament with amendments.

“The Government has found it necessary in this last week of the session to hasten slowly, to come to Parliament today, giving us late notice on Friday for this bill… Why did you take two years, if you were so concerned about fighting crime, why did you take two years to come to the parliament?”

She noted that the rationale behind the amendments to the bill – as a response to rampant crime and criminality – remains the same as the 1994 Act. She added that the Bail Bill, despite alterations, was unable to make a dent in crime.

“For the last nine years, on five occasions they have come with bail amendments, but they have not helped. How is this piece of legislation help in fighting crime? We’ve tried this before, it hasn’t worked and here we are back again, some 30 years later with the same reasoning that we are dealing with since 1994.”

She said the Opposition supported changes to the bill in 2016 and 2019 but could not support it in 2022, as it would trample on the separation of powers.

Reading statements from the Law Association on provisions in the 2019 amendment, Persad-Bissessar questioned what could be defined as “exceptional circumstances.”

“The association is unable to discern exactly what this means,” she said, reading from the Law Association’s statement. “The phrase ‘in exceptional circumstances’ is not defined, so it would be left for the judiciary to flesh out circumstances in which it may depart from the prohibition against granting bail.”

The statement said people would ordinarily be denied bail when people are likely to flee, commit another offence while on bail or interfere with witnesses.

Repeat offenders terrorising public

In laying the bill before Parliament, Attorney General Reginald Armour, SC, said amendments were in the interest of law-abiding citizens who were being terrorised by criminals charged with serious offences yet granted bail.

He put forward statistics which suggested that a majority of people before the courts were repeat offenders.

He said from 2019-2024 the police identified 722 repeat offenders. Statistics from the office of the commissioner of prisons said out of a total of 2,261 convicted male offenders in 2019, there were 1,110 repeat offenders – a 49 per cent of the total of male convictions.

Armour noted that in 2020 and 2021, the number of repeat offenders declined by ten per cent but this was because of the pandemic.

In 2023, the percentage sky-rocketed. Out of 2,070 convictions, 1,076 were repeat offenders – about 52 per cent of total offenders for that year. From 2022-2023, there was a 139 per cent increase of convicted male re-offenders.

“The Government recognises the proposed restrictions on the exercise of the court’s discretion to grant or refuse bail to people charged with serious offences will not somehow miraculously put an end to the wave of criminality we’ve been faced with in recent years,” he said.

“The re-offending statistics that I have placed before this house justifies the imposition of a reverse burden on such people and an enhanced burden to show the existence of exceptional circumstances to grant bail to the most serious of offences.”

“We recognise that the majority of citizens are law-abiding citizens, constantly being terrorised by the recidivism of repeat offenders coming back out and committing crimes.”

The prime minister expressed gratitude that the bill would be passed.

Dr Rowley said the law has to change to deal with criminal elements. “Because of the exceptional circumstances of the behaviour of a small number of citizens who are terrorizing this country with violent crime of the worst kind, the people’s representatives in this house are to take it upon ourselves to change the rule so an advantage could come to the wider law-abiding population. If it inconveniences the smaller criminal minority then so be it.”

“Parliament, in our system is to make the law, the judiciary’s role is to interpret the law and apply the law. If we all do that then the criminals will find themselves with no safe haven,” he said.