Access To Justice For San Fernando: New Legal Aid Office Opens
The Legal Aid and Advisory Authority moves to make justice more accessible to the people of the southland with the opening of its new building on # 6 Harris Street, San Fernando.
Established 35 years ago by the Legal Aid and Advice Act of 1976, the Legal Aid and Advisory Authority under the Ministry of Justice, has been assiduously serving citizens of Trinidad and Tobago through the watchwords, “Justitia omnibus”- “Justice for all”.
Member of Parliament for San Fernando West, the Honourable Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan in delivering remarks commended the Authority on their achievement and also thanked the Honourable Minister of Justice for his continued work to ensure that justice will indeed become more accessible to citizens in the south-land.
Recognising the moment as a significant milestone in the achievement of one of the Authority’s objectives, Minister of Justice, the Honourable Herbert Volney MP said that there was a need for suitable accommodation owing to the steady increase of clients seeking services from the Authority.
He noted that the Authority not only services criminal matters but also civil matters indicating that the Authority gives advice and counsel to victims of domestic violence, divorce matters, maintenance matters as well as property matters. Legal aid and advice in the area of family matters (for example, divorces, disputes involving matrimonial property, domestic violence, custody and maintenance) is the most sought after service offered by the Authority. Land matters constitute the second highest area in which applications are made.
In its bid to transform and modernise the Criminal Justice System, the Ministry of Justice has recognised the urgent need to amend the existing Legal Aid and Advice Act for the purpose of widening access to legal aid, particularly with regard to minors, possibly the most vulnerable category of persons within our Criminal Justice System. The proposed amendments which have already been debated in the Senate and will be brought to the Lower House shortly, is expected to treat with the issues that have come to bear on the efficient operations of the Authority.
Present provisions in the Act essentially only allow unemployed and partially employed persons access to the service. The proposed amendments however, seek to widen access to legal aid making it more accessible to those who truly need it but do not have the means. The Ammendment Bill proposes to increase the maximum disposable capital from a ceiling of five thousand dollars ($5,000) to a ceiling of twenty thousand dollars ($20,000). It is further proposed that the disposable income be increased from a figure not exceeding seven thousand dollars ($7,000) to a figure not exceeding thirty-six thousand dollars ($36,000). Thus making legal aid more accessible to persons of moderate means or earning a moderate income per annum.
Another amendment featured is the Duty Counsel Scheme which would allow persons detained on suspicion of having committed an indictable offence to access legal representation, as soon as possible, upon being detained and not only upon being charged with the offence as is presently the case. This system would also allow for faster representation at the High Courts catering for swifter access to justice. The need to protect juveniles under the law is also clearly recognised by the introduction of the Duty Counsel Scheme. This initiaive will, for the first time, bring our legislation in line with our international obligations, which necessitate the provision of free legal assistance for arrested or accused juveniles.
Amendments are also being proposed to fees payable to attorneys-at-law representing persons who have requested legal aid. These proposed increases are being made in light of the ever increasing difficulty in retaining attorneys-at-law on legal aid panels, willing to be assigned to matters, especially at the High Courts.
The Honourable Herbert Volney MP, Minister of Justice; the Honourable Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan, Member of Parliament for San Fernando West; Her Worship Marlene Coudray, Mayor of the City of San Fernando; Ms. Cecilia Greaves-Smith, Permanent Secretary (Ag.) of the Ministry of Justice and Mr. Chateram Sinanan, Director/Chairman of the Legal Aid and Advisory Authority cut the ribbon to open the building. The new facility is expected to become operational on 16th February, 2012.