Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves is calling out some members of the judiciary in the region for not being harsh enough in their sentencing of criminals.
Dr Gonsalves made the observation, as he addressed a regional symposium on crime this week. The symposium was a collaborative effort of CARICOM and the government of Trinidad and Tobago, in addressing crime and violence as a public health issue.
The symposium, which involved experts and Heads of Governments, was held on April 17 and 18 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Trinidad and Tobago.
Addressing the forum on Monday April 17, Prime Minister Gonsalves stated firmly that “ too many of our judges and our magistrates, are too soft”.
“Sometimes, we get the impression, that some magistrates (depending on who is the lawyer) that their people seem to get a better treatment.”
Generally, across the region, their is usually an outcry for justice, from relatives of persons who were victims of serious crime, especially homicide.
In most instances, relatives are seldom satisfied with the penalty handed down by the court for the crime which was committed.
In his contribution to the symposium on Monday, Prime Minister Gonsalves said this problem is often spoken about “behind closed doors.”
“You don’t hear it from a prime minister.”
However, Gonsalves, who is also this country’s Minister of National Security, called for a conversation on the matter among the Heads of Governments.
“Let us begin to talk about these things too.
“All of these matters touch and concern how we are going to address this question,” the Prime Minister affirmed.
Revisiting the matter during his contribution to the symposium on Tuesday April 18, Gonsalves stated that the justice system in the region “is increasingly becoming controlled” by lawyers who practice criminal law.
“We all know that the oxygen of the legal profession is money.”
The prime minister added that lawyers across the Caribbean “ use delays in the court system in order to have trials adjourn, adjourn and adjourn.”
According to the Prime Minister, these same lawyers then turn around and “complain how long the trial takes.”
Gonsalves also mentioned that there is a link between crime and the illegal drug trade.
“Across the Caribbean, people complain that you catch the smaller fry, but Mr Big escapes.”
He charged that “lawyers control the court system, under the guise of protecting the rights of the accused.”
In terms of lawyers causing numerous delays in court proceedings, Gonsalves said “delay is part of the defense.
“And judges ought to know that.”
“Some persons who are not lawyers and who are prime ministers, may not speak in this manner in which I speak,” Gonsalves pointed out.
The former defense lawyer, then issued a word of caution specifically to judges.
“I have to say to my brethren on the bench, they have to start controlling their courts again.”
He explained that in the case of homicides, the victims’ families “do not understand and appreciate what is happening in this regard.”
“There are trials now, criminal trials, they are having a kind of pre-trial case management for one of the largest kinds of civil cases.
“When I used to practice law 30 years ago before the criminal courts, we didn’t have that sort of thing happening; but its taking place now,” he said.
“And people are complaining about these delays, and rightly so.
“If the politician opens his mouth and says it, they say you are interfering in the independence of the judiciary,” he said further.
“Just as I am subject to reasonable criticism, judges themselves, and magistrates to reasonable criticism.”
The Prime Minister also related his view that “justice is not a cloistered virtue.”
The audience lustily applauded the Vincentian prime minister for these remarks. Gonsalves went on to add that it is not contempt of court to make such a criticism.
“If we cannot shine the light of transparency as to what goes on there… well then, a lot of what we are doing here will become, will be rendered meaningless.”
Another vexing issue raised by Gonsalves, is the granting of bail in some jurisdictions, to persons who are charged with murder.
“How can you give somebody who is charged for murder bail?” Gonsalves asked at the regional symposium on Monday. “How can you do that?”
“Where those judges live, on Mars?” he asked rhetorically.
The two day symposium in Trinidad was held under the theme “Violence as a Public Health Issue- The Crime Challenge.”
The forum aimed at promoting dialogue and regional action aimed at violence reduction and crime prevention.