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Saturday 20 April 2019
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Five times lucky

LAST MONTH, Justice Gillian Lucky presided over an unprecedented special hearing to determine the status of cases stuck within the complex web of the criminal justice system.

One of those cases was that of Alicia Ramnath, 31. Ramnath spent five years and seven months in jail awaiting trial for an offence which, had she pleaded guilty, would have seen her sentenced to two. Her case shows why the Judiciary’s special status-hearing project is a welcome initiative, but it is also a reminder of the challenges facing the criminal justice system.

The procedure adopted by Lucky is a good example of how resourcefulness and creativity can solve seemingly intractable problems. People on remand were advised of the option to voluntarily be a part of the proceedings to untangle any cases lost in the limbo between the magistrates’ courts and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. Because the Office of the DPP must file an indictment at the High Court before a matter goes to trial, and because of infernal delays at all levels of the system due to the sheer workload, there are likely to be many cases like Ramnath’s.

While it is good that Lucky was able, in this instance, to dispatch with this matter by imposing a fine, given that the maximum sentence had already been exhausted on remand, it remains unacceptable that people in this country are subject to such an inhumane and unjust system. As William E Gladstone once remarked, “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

People on remand face appalling physical conditions. Problems securing bail, coupled with the lengthy time it takes for a matter to go to trial, render the presumption of innocence in this country meaningless. While we welcome the special status hearing, as well as other recent innovations such as Goodyear Hearings, it must be acknowledged that accused people should never be placed in a position in which they have to opt for such procedures.

Ramnath’s plight could have easily been worse. She served a 20-month sentence for a previous offence prior to the start of her five-year, seven-month stint. The offence for which she will now pay a $3,500 fine was one of corruptly receiving money under false pretences.

That’s not a trivial offence, yet it has probably cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands over more than five years, considering estimates that a prisoner costs the State $20,000 per month.
We congratulate the Judiciary for this status-hearing initiative. But the real issue is why so many people are unjustly languishing behind bars in the first place.

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