by Anand Beharrylal
After the first decision of the High Court on the now infamous `Section 34′ there are still those who remain dissatisfied with the approach of the government and the now the courts. To most who have asked me about it, expressed an opinion and invited mine, I have been amazed at the complete lack of understanding that persists. Of course I recognise that the media frenzy, political disinformation and the Trinidadian desire for scandalous news has a great part to play, but it is truly saddening that only a few people have actually read Section 34. Those that have and then looked at the state of the criminal justice system appreciate not only the reasoning behind Section 34, but the profound need for it.
The criminal justice system in TT is creaking under the heavy load of cases that are pending in the courts, many for over 10 years and indeed longer. Both witnesses and defendants have long been awaiting their day in court and yet, despite their cases being called perhaps several times a month over many years, a trial is nowhere in sight. The majority of people affected by this have given up on the justice system and in many cases witnesses quite rightly wishing to move on with their lives move home, move abroad or just forget because they are fed up.
For the defendant (presumed innocent) the situation is arguably worse e.g. a man aged 20 alleged to have stolen a car, his case adjourned over and over until he now makes appearances in the courts aged in his 30s. He cannot get bail because he cannot afford to raise the ridiculously high surety set and his legal aid lawyers, chasing ever more important and lucrative briefs, return his case so many times he sees a fresh faced lawyer with irregularity and even more often no lawyer at all. The car of course is now scrap metal the alleged victim having bought many cars since and has long forgotten of the theft of his car 10 years before.
Worse still is TT’s main criminal scourge, particularly since 2002, being violent crime characterised by murder, rape, kidnapping, gun crime and of course, drug related crime. In this regard the population has rightly called for this type of crime to be prioritised and relentlessly pursued. Indeed this was a main reason for a change of government in 2010.
Now enter Section 34 which was intended to prioritise these very offences within 2 years of a new government. The offences that would have been de-prioritised were the non-frightening, non-violent, non-sexual and non-drug related cases, but only after a period of 10 years due to delay in these cases getting through the justice system. I ask rhetorically, where the resources of any state are necessarily limited and the demand on the resources are unlimited, are tough legislative decisions like Section 34 designed specifically to address the most pressing social problems wrong? Most right thinking people I have explained all of this to agree with the laudable objectives of Section 34 and expressed a desire for all of this to be explained in TT. Regrettably, explanations by Minister Volney and others got lost in the sensationalist media coverage. This was a tragedy and the repeal of Section 34 as a desperately needed piece of legislation to prioritise enforcement against violent crime has been lost to political meandering.
For the opposition this must have been a masterstroke for not only have they succeeded in forcing a government u-turn, they have done so by portraying a much needed piece of legislation in TT as a law to improperly help specific people, when nowhere in Section 34 did it so provide. If this was really the concern about the legislation the opposition, being mindful of the wider benefits of Section 34, would not have voted for it. Alternatively, they would have proposed an amendment with an upper limit for white-collar crime to be included in Schedule 6 to preserve ongoing cases instead of a total repeal. On other hand, if the opposition genuinely did not notice the text or impact of Section 34 then it is the clearest evidence that as an opposition it is not fit for government. After all an opposition that sleeps on the job, missing legislation when legislative oversight is its primary function is not even fit for Parliament.
Whilst I credit the government for acting expeditiously, unlike governments of the past, when I foresee the consequences for the people of TT I am firmly of the view that this knee jerk reaction to the opposition’s political manoeuvring was wrong. Governing is not like opposition, it requires tough decisions to be made and the political will to see them through. This was what made the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher the greatest post-war leader of her age. As she said “Yes, the medicine is harsh, but the patient requires it in order to live. Should we withhold the medicine? No. We are not wrong. We did not seek election and win in order to manage the decline of a great nation.” TT could be a great nation and Section 34 would have gone a long way in bringing to trial those alleged murderers, rapists and drug dealers making the criminal justice work and be seen to work. For the victims of these crimes the inevitable consequence of delay for them is not simply justice delayed, it is justice denied. That is the true consequence of the repeal of Section 34.