IT MAY have taken far too long, but the unanimous decision of the House of Representatives to approve the Anti-Gang Bill 2018 is something which must nonetheless be commended.
Two amendments appeared to change the complexion of the legislation allowing all 37 members to finally support it. Firstly, a sunset clause which will see the law reviewed after a 30-month period was agreed to. And secondly, the potentially draconian power of the police to detain a suspected gang member for more than 72 hours without charge will be subject to review by a judge.
These changes were hard-won after much back and forth between the Government and the Opposition. At the end of the day, we believe they add value to the legislation that now heads to the Senate. Still, it has to be asked why such simple changes took so long. Could they not have been made from day one?
It is unfortunate the political games that were played in relation to this legislation so substantially prolonged the matter. In this regard, it is notable the Opposition was responsive to the outcry of the population over its failure to support an earlier version of the legislation and that the Government acceded to a request from the Opposition to re-open talks on the bill as well as to specific amendments. Both sides flexed muscle. But while this latest détente between the PNM and UNC is cause for celebration, it is clear that troubling problems remain in terms of the way our legislature as a whole formulates law.
Disclosure that several key stakeholders (the Judiciary, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Law Association) failed to reply to a request for submissions made by the Ministry of the Attorney General is troubling. Advice from these parties is useful in drafting robust laws that achieve policy aims and that have a good chance of being capable of withstanding scrutiny in court.
At the same time, it is understandable why such agencies might have been reluctant to participate in a legislative process that was exceptionally caustic and politicised. Also, because changes may happen to laws on the Parliament floor, these bodies often cannot be assured their advice and cautions will be heeded. They could well find themselves associated with bad law through no fault of their own. The Section 34 fiasco is a good example.
So, while the anti-gang law is an important milestone in the continued fight against crime, the Parliament must next look to improve the consultation process it adopts in criminal justice reform. The solution could well be the one advanced by Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar who on Friday suggested more reliance on non-partisan joint select committees. Such committees have a proven track-record in our legislative process and are a resource the State would do well to draw on.