Attorney-at-Law Ashley Bernadine has chided the local Legal Aid and Counseling Clinic (LAACC) for the shortage in legal representation for defendants, especially juveniles, within the criminal justice system.
“Legal Aid is a misnomer in this country…Legal Aid all over the world is intended to help indigent criminal offenders; but, instead (Grenada’s) legal aid office does other things,” the Attorney declared in an interview with THE NEW TODAY last week Wednesday, following the completion of one of his pro-bono rape cases at the number 1 High Court in St. George’s.
The defendant was 22-year-old Willis resident, Akim Cambridge, who was given a 2-year suspended sentence by High Court Judge, Justice Sharif Aziz, after pleading guilty to 4 counts of rape earlier this year.
The LAACC is a non-governmental organisation, which works in correlation with the Ministry of Social Development.
Currently, it only provides for legal assistance in civil matters such as family law and counseling but not in criminal matters.
Attorney Bernadine told this newspaper what he believes to have been the “genesis” for Cambridge’s problem and getting in trouble with the law.
“He used to be bullied in school and eventually, he stood up to one of the bullies, who took his lunch money on the last occasion, and they had a fight…he told me that after the fight he just left school and never went back,” said the Attorney-at-law.
Bernadine noted that at the time of the incident, Cambridge was just a 15 year-old Form 3 student attending the Happy Hill Secondary School, (HHSS).
“So here you see that his education was stunted and there are no social safety nets to follow up. For example the fact that the incident happened (and he dropped out of school), the school should have called him or his parents – that wasn’t done. They should have a Truant officer, people who would visit the school to find out why he wasn’t coming to school. It appears (as if) nobody cared,” he explained.
“No social worker checked up on him (Cambridge),”Attorney Bernadine said, adding that this should have been regarded as “the first indication of signs of trouble”.
“There are a lot of individuals like him (Cambridge) who drop through the cracks,” he said, because “the system is not doing a significant job” in seeking their best interest.
According to Attorney Bernadine, this is where Legal Aid should step in.
“We need a barometer to deal with these things. There is little or no guidance for the young people coming up. We – somebody in the court system, a social worker or somebody (for) when these young offenders come, to be able to take them aside and give them counseling to prevent them from continuing the process…because they drop out of school and they resort to escapism and dive in drugs and alcohol and so forth,” said the concerned attorney.
Bernadine expressed the view that if the correct system is put in place then “this would help the society, because fewer offences would be committed and the communities would be better off.”
He suggested that more lawyers are needed to help young offenders because there are only about 4 or 5 attorneys engaged in the criminal justice system.
“We need Legal Aid…the word itself means free legal advice or representation for a person who cannot afford it,” Attorney Bernadine said, pointing to the increase in sexual criminal offences, which dominated the list of cases set down for hearing in the October 2015 assizes.
“These are indigent people. I ended up helping out pro bono and I have been doing it for years…these cases cost you time and money…but it’s social justice, so something has to be done and we have to give these people more help”, he added.
Bernadine called on the relevant authorities in the country “to create a roster of all the lawyers, and rotate them at a reduced cost” aid service for those in need.
“…You can’t over burden 4 -5 lawyers to deal with these (criminal) matters”, he remarked.
Attempts by this newspaper to get a response from LAACC on Bernadine’s statement proved futile.
Attorney Bernadine also cited the need for the newly built Juvenile Justice Centre at Grand Bacolet to become functional as soon as possible.
“There is a need for a home for young offenders – we have spoken about it for years…we have to separate young offenders from the seasoned offenders in prison. And then, there is the loss of what I call religious zeal and understanding…we seem to live in a world where there is no fear of God and that’s the problem among the young people”, he said,
“We need to reinstate certain values in the social fabric of this society otherwise all of us will be in trouble…something is wrong, we must realise prayer is the key to the warehouse of wealth in heaven” he added
In the 2016 Budget, Prime Minister and Finance Minister Dr. Keith Mitchell announced an EC$1 million allocation for the newly built Juvenile Justice Centre, at Grand Bacolet, St. Andrew.
In a telephone interview with THE NEW TODAY newspaper last week Friday, Director of Juvenile Justice, Dowlyn Bartholomew highlighted some of the contributing factors linking children to delinquency.
He said that while there is a linkage between illiteracy and the commission of crime, the fact of the matter is that there are a lot of persons who would have attained good educational status and still engage in criminal activities.
“There are a lot of factors that may come into play, which may result in a child breaking the law,” he said, adding, “we know through studies, (that) there are economic reasons, social issues, poor parenting, and poor socialisation generally, not only within the home, but at school and other systems of socialization”.
“…We have a lot of young parents who are not prepared for the role of parenting, so their inability to cope and train the children might result in the children becoming engaged in wrong doing”, he remarked.
According to Bartholomew, a former Assistant Commissioner of Police, the Ministry of social Services has developed programmes, specifically, for mothers whose children have found themselves in conflict with the law.
“We are trying to do as much as we can to give parents the necessary skills to train and deal with the children so that they do not become delinquent,” he said.
The Director of Juvenile Justice pointed out that a number of entities also have a role to play in the ongoing Juvenile Justice and Reform system, under the yet to be enacted Juvenile Justice Act, which received approval from Parliament in 2012.
These include, the Child Protection Authority, Legal Aid and Counseling Clinic, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Youth, Grenada Coalition on the Rights of the Child, and the Royal Grenada Police Force (RGPF), among others.
He said these entities need to “come together to work to ensure that we protect our young persons and provide them with an opportunity to improve themselves”.
Bartholomew indicated that the intention of government is to have the juvenile facility up and running within the first quarter of next year.
“We are making all the necessary preparations, putting all the necessary administrative procedures in place,” he said.