Testimony to trauma

The Hall of Justice, Port of Spain. - File photo by Roger Jacob
The Hall of Justice, Port of Spain. - File photo by Roger Jacob

THE CHILLING developments in a murder trial at the Hall of Justice in Port of Spain this week serve as their own kind of testimony to a nation and a criminal justice system beset by the trauma of crime.

In this country, the public has long become accustomed to orders being issued by judges for accused people to be sent to the St Ann’s Psychiatric Hospital.

What we are not accustomed to is seeing a witness, and one for the State, sent to the same facility.

This is what occurred in the matter before Justice Lisa Ramsumair-Hinds on May 22.

It is for the judge, and the judge alone, to assess the evidence and render the ultimate verdict in this case.

We wish today to speak not to the specific facts of the trial, but to address a broader issue which is, in our view, of urgent importance given the distressingly high level of crime and ongoing efforts to facilitate more criminal trial proceedings.

That issue is the need for consideration of how best to address the fact that all who encounter the criminal justice system – including victims and accused people – face specific mental health hazards.

This extends to witnesses. In fact, it even extends to law enforcement officers.

Just one month ago, seasoned policemen who had cause to report to the scene of a particularly gruesome crime were near tears and spoke of their need for counselling in interviews on live television.

If it is frequently asked whether there are enough courts, judges, prosecutors and defenders, we should also ask whether our mental health measures are keeping up.

This is so even considering the work of the Victim and Witness Support Unit, which often gives the impression that it is overwhelmed by the sheer number of cases.

There is also a need to interrogate attitudes to mental health, which is too often seen as a taboo subject, as well as the capacity of regional health facilities.

There was a time when many hospitals ostensibly had sections for psychiatry. But the field has advanced considerably. And many areas (sometimes a single cell or cage) have been repurposed.

We understand the Port of Spain General Hospital does not have a specialist mental health wing. A person admitted there must then be transferred to the St Ann’s facility. There has been no indication the $1 billion central block under way might change this.

It is also an open question whether it is ideal for very different patients to be mixed up in the same facility, though having a wide range of expertise in one location is beneficial.

There are already so many barriers to justice.

Let us not allow the losing sight of mental health to become another.


"Testimony to trauma"

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