By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
TWO years after the Office of the Public Defender was opened to much fanfare, the office is slowly growing as many continue to fight serious charges in court without a lawyer.
The problem was highlighted in the US State Department’s 2018 human rights report, which said: “The government provided legal representation only to destitute suspects charged with capital crimes, leaving a large number of defendants without adequate legal representation.”
The Office of the Public Defender was launched in January 2017. Then Court of Appeal President Justice Dame Anita Allen said it would “go a long way in eliminating the delay often occasioned by non-availability of criminal defence counsel.” Former Chief Justice Sir Hartman Longley said the office would be expected to reduce delays in criminal trials.
The government saw the office as key to reducing trial backlogs, with former Attorney General Allyson Maynard Gibson revealing that as many as 16 percent of cases do not go to trial because defendants do not have a lawyer. A $20m Citizen Security and Justice Programme loan facilitated the creation of the public defender’s office.
According to legal experts, data is not available to show how many people face serious charges without legal representation but the number that do is high. The Office of the Public Defender was initially supposed to assist people on remand awaiting trial. It was expected to eventually open up to anyone who cannot afford a lawyer.
The Tribune understands the office is swamped with work and lacks manpower to meet the considerable demand for legal representation. At the same time, the Crown Brief system, the traditional avenue through which defence lawyers have helped poor people for a fee paid by the government, continues to attract a limited number of lawyers. Experts say various legal aid services help relatively few people.
Thomas Evans, QC, director of the Office of the Public Defender, said the office has recently engaged four new lawyers.
“We want to be able to satisfy the requirements of the constitution in respect to the availability of competent legal advisors for people who are charged with offences before the court,” he said, noting Article 20 (2)(d) of the constitution guarantees the right of a person to “defend himself in person, or at his own expense by a legal representative of his choice, or by a legal representative at the public’s expense, where so provided by law in force in the Bahamas.”
“We think gradually, even if slowly, we’re getting there,” he said.
One obstacle for the office is that no legislation governs its work.
“We absolutely have to have a legislation on my interpretation of the constitution and I wrote a letter just recently addressing that,” Mr Evans said. “I don’t know that we can properly operate the way we are operating now. I think the constitution very clearly says that this kind of activity must be done pursuant to some legislation.”
Mr Evans said officials are looking at the possibility of raising funds to meet its needs.
In remarks at the opening of the 2013 legal year, Justice Allen said an underrepresented defendant could be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the preparations required to defend a case and the number of legal considerations that arise during trial.