ASSURANCES new court premises will soon become available to serve Princes Town, San Fernando and Tobago are welcome. But the need for purpose-built infrastructure, greater capacity, and adequate and autonomous judiciary funding remain.
Following a meeting with judiciary officials in May, president of the Assembly of Southern Lawyers Michael Rooplal this week disclosed plans to rent premises to house both the Princes Town and Rio Claro Magistrates’ Courts. A building for the San Fernando Magistrates’ Court has also been earmarked at 46 Irving Street and in Tobago a family court is due to be opened on Calder Hall Main Road.
These additions will go some way to relieving pressures on existing facilities, some of which reportedly suffered damage during last year’s 6.9 earthquake. However, the measures do not obviate the requirement for facilities to be designed to cater to the diverse needs of all stakeholders within the criminal justice system, including the public.
There is a justice sector committee comprising most of these stakeholders and one wonders why they have not advocated more to lift the cloak of lethargy which shrouds the judiciary.
Accounts of courthouse facilities being designed in such a way that prisoners, judges, and lawyers walk the same narrow corridors should serve as a reminder that these buildings have very specific needs, above and beyond the demands of being fit to handle large volumes of cases.
At the moment many courtrooms in use were never purpose-built. Some are clearly too small to handle the sheer volume of matters before them, including a backlog that often stretches into the tens of thousands by some reports.
In speaking of criminal justice reform, we very often speak of the number of judges, the use of certain procedures to save time, and the question of remand conditions. Little focus is paid to the social functions courts are supposed to perform in the long-run. They must instill confidence in law and order, suggest all the hallmarks of justice, imply stability, transparency and order, and literally make room for rehabilitation and deterrence.
Building new courtrooms is undoubtedly expensive. But using facilities ill-suited to the needs of the criminal justice system is dangerous.
Meanwhile, despite the availability of technology that could be used to minimise expensive and wasteful court appearances, such technology is very rarely put to use. There should be an inquiry into how measures like video-conferencing can be expanded to make a meaningful difference. Other than that the judiciary is doomed be a part of the dangerous practice of a private security firm, barrelling up and down the Priority Bus Route, transporting prisoners to mere remand hearings. This is a disaster waiting to happen.
While it is good the State and the judiciary work hand in hand to bring about solutions, the need for the judiciary to have an autonomous budget is also germane. In this regard, the Caribbean Court of Justice provides a model of how self-funding could work.
Security concerns must also be addressed at the new facilities, from all perspectives.
The new premises will be useful. But reform of the overall system appears to be too piecemeal and there is a need for faster progress on all fronts.