APPROXIMATELY 90 court matters have been settled through plea bargaining over the last two years.
Chief public defender Hasine Shaikh made this comment in response to questions from Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh during a virtual meeting of the Finance and Legal Affairs Joint Select Committee (JSC) on Friday.
Deyalsingh praised former attorney general Faris Al-Rawi for initiating steps to reduce the backlog of cases before the courts by introducing initiatives such as plea bargaining and judge-only trials.
Plea bargaining is an arrangement between prosecutor and defendant whereby the defendant pleads guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for a more lenient sentence or an agreement to drop other charges
Deyalsingh recalled there was some opposition to these moves when Al-Rawi mentioned them back in 2017 as part of the conversation about abolishing preliminary inquires.
Shaikh told JSC members of the 90 matters completed through plea bargaining, 23 resulted in a guilty ruling. She said the public defenders' department, which falls under the Legal Aid and Advisory Authority, specifically handles plea-bargaining matters before the High Court and the Court of Appeal.
Owing to the process involving inputs from several different entities, such as the police and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Shaikh said it is not simple and may take six months in some instances. She added that plea bargaining is pursued in all courts in Trinidad and Tobago.
Responding to questions from Opposition Senator Jayanti Lutchmedial, authority secretary Richard Ragoobarsingh said many people are unaware of the public defenders' department and the authority.
Before the department was created, Ragoobarsingh said there was a small group of attorneys in private practice who specialised in criminal law.
Shaikh added that this number was no more than 21.
Ragoobarsingh said, "In looking at the strategic development of the legal team, we felt the time had come to separate them clearly into two parallel tracks."
Attorneys who handle civil and criminal matters, he continued, can work in the public defenders' department if they want to focus exclusively on the latter.
"That is why the public defenders' department was established."
Shaikh said to date, the department has successfully concluded 336 matters.
In response to a question from JSC chair Independent Senator Hazel Thompson-Ahye, Ragoobarsingh said the authority provides legal aid for people unable to hire an attorney for themselves.
The people the authority helps are those who earn a maximum of $36,000 per year or $3,000 per month.
Port of Spain South MP Keith Scotland was comforted by this and by the authority chairman, Gilbert Peterson, SC, saying people seeking legal aid from the authority could receive quality representation.