Chief Public Defender aims to cut backlog of criminal cases

Hasine Shaikh
Hasine Shaikh

WITH an army of 30 selected criminal defence attorneys, 35-year-old, Hasine Shaikh hopes to drastically reduce the backlog of cases choking the criminal justice system.

Shaikh, was hired on March 2 to be the first Chief Public Defender in the Public Defenders’ Office.

Charged with charting a new course in the justice system, her aim is to bring justice for all. Her responsibilities are the establishment of the department, to set up work flows, oversee, consult and appear on criminal matters as they arise and be the liaison for the department with respective stakeholders.

Asked what her measurement of success will be at the end of the two-year contract she said: “We need to provide a quality service and like any other service, efficiency and effectiveness are the keystones of measurement. For me, a reduction in the backlog of cases is a tangible measure of success.”

The married mother of one said she and her husband balance their work and family life well and with the added pressure of leading a yet to be assembled team, her family support system is crucial.

“My husband and I support each other in ensuring we both get to do what we need to do for work, without neglecting our family unit. We are also extremely lucky that we have extended family who are able to step in when needed. Overall, it involves planning ahead in terms of work responsibilities, and being efficient in our use of time. It often means scheduling around the family time with early morning wake-ups or late nights behind the computer, but it works for us.”

Having 12 years of practice in the criminal bar under her belt, for Shaikh being the first Chief Public Defender is a hard achievement to beat. She considers herself as having been given an opportunity to help shape the criminal justice system.

“My focus is for the department is to make a meaningful contribution in facilitating access to justice for all.”

After touting the formation of the public defender’s department for a while, Attorney General Faris Al–Rawi announced Shaikh as the head of the unit on April 17.

The unit is part of the Legal Aid and Advisory Authority (LAAA) but will focus on criminal matters at the High Court level with a few exceptions at the magistrates level.

Prior to the formation of the unit, Legal Aid handled all court and advisory matters for those qualified to access the services, both civil and criminal. With the unit now established and seeking to fill the 30 vacancies of attorneys and additional support staff, all criminal matters at the High Court level will be dealt with by Shaikh’s team.

Moving forward

“Everything needs to follow a process, step by step. It would be naïve of me to expect that everything is going to happen at once. I have started evaluating and making changes to our internal processes to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the department. There will also be extensive collaboration with all the relevant stakeholders to collectively make decisions that push real changes,” Shaikh said when asked how she plans to improve the criminal justice system.

One of the main reasons for the current delays in the justice system has been the unavailability of criminal defence attorneys to represent clients. The reason in many cases were unattractive remuneration packages. Special arrangements were made for attorneys who represent some men in the Vindra Naipaul-Coolman murder trial. Defence lawyers successfully petitioned the LAAA to triple their payments. Advocate attorneys were paid $30,000 a month and their instructing attorney $15,000, the usual fee is a maximum of $10,000 and $5,000, respectively. The case went on for 20 months.

Al-Rawi in his announcement said the Public Defenders' Office will assist with that. Asked about possible concerns that the unit, a state entity, may not have the best interest of their clients who will also be prosecuted by the state, Shaikh said her department will be focused solely on justice.

“The role of the Public Defenders’ department is to ensure that there is procedural fairness and test the case that is presented. It is the job of the attorneys to advance the best defence to the “trier of facts” and allow justice to run its course. Within the team, there will be oversight by senior attorneys on the strategy and planning of each case as well as case reviews to ensure matters are being progressed judiciously. These oversight mechanisms will assist in ensuring the best interests of the client are met.”

Shaikh said at the end of the day it is not about “the number of wins,” rather the ability to advance the best case.

“An attorney’s reputation is their greatest treasure and no attorney will risk that regardless of pay cheque.”

Asked if she has political aspiration given her year as a temporary opposition senator, Shaikh said her ambition is and will always be to serve her country. The role as Chief Public Defender, for her, is where she can do just that.

Building her team

Shaikh, when asked to name five criminal attorneys whom she would like to join her team and explain her choice said there is no particular person she wants on her team adding that interviews are still being done. She said some attorneys, whom she kept anonymous, have expressed their interest in becoming a public defender. While she did not identify the remuneration packages for the attorneys, Shaikh said interviews are ongoing.

“A great team does not need star players alone, it needs people who can capably fill every role. To use a football analogy, (Lionel) Messi and (Cristiano) Ronaldo cannot play on their own no matter how good they are. They are backed by others who help the overall team succeed.”

She added: "There are no specific attorneys that I wish to target. Instead, I have specific qualities that I am looking for, that includes a passion to serve, persons who command the respect of the judiciary as well as their peers and those who are team players."

The Public Defenders' department is an opportunity for defence attorneys "to be part of a department that is geared to change the criminal justice system." She said with a broad spectrum of cases, attorneys will attain a variety of experience, rarely obtained in private practice and with the backing of the team and the department’s resources, those willing to join will learn and grow professionally.

Accessing a Public Defender

Being the first is both a burden and a pride. Shaikh when asked why she offered herself for the position said she saw the role as an opportunity to exercise her passion for criminal defence.

The mission of the department is to provide legal representation to those who could not access it. In her 12 year career, all of which was in private practice, she saw the hardships of those who could not access legal representation and wanted to give others the fairness and competency that was lacking in what she saw.

To access a public defender an accused will have to apply to the Legal Aid or if in custody, make a request through the Prison Welfare Unit.

The accused will have the right to object to the counsel provided, however, there is a process before the attorney can or will be removed. After the objection is made it is then reviewed and assessed by Shaikh and if there is no merit to it, the attorney assigned will remain as the accused attorney.

Asked about representation from her team at the magistrate level, Shaikh said: “There is a process in place currently under the Legal Aid and Advisory Authority whereby, persons before the magistrates’ court can apply for legal aid. Their application will be processed and an attorney from the Legal Aid Panel will be assigned. At this time, the Legal Aid panel sufficiently services the Magistrates’ Court. As the Public Defenders’ department complement of attorneys expands, the range of matters that a public defender can attend to will also expand.”

About Hasine

Hasine Shaikh earned her bachelor’s degree in law from University of the West Indies St. Augustine. She earned her Masters of Law in Criminology and Criminal Justice from the University of London and completed postgraduate diplomas in Family Law and International Criminal Justice. Her areas of practice have been in criminal, family and civil law.


"Chief Public Defender aims to cut backlog of criminal cases"

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