By LETRE SWEETING
Tribune Staff Reporter
PEOPLE represented by the Office of the Public Defender were convicted of crimes 78 per cent of the time between January 2017 and December 2022, according to OPD statistics.
This figure does not include cases where the prosecution withdrew charges, as happened 34 times.
The OPD was launched to fanfare in 2017, with the Court of Appeal President Justice Dame Anita Allen saying it would “go a long way in eliminating the delay often associated by non-availability of criminal defence counsel”.
Initially intended to assist people on remand, the OPD was expected to eventually open up to anyone who cannot afford a lawyer.
In a national report ahead of last week’s United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Universal Periodic Review, the government framed the OPD as fulfilling people’s constitutional right to a lawyer when they cannot afford an attorney.
For now, the OPD is filling a gap despite its limited human resources.
Since 2017, the body has represented clients facing charges of armed robbery, unlawful sexual intercourse, robbery, causing grievous harm, murder, kidnapping, burglary, rape, receiving, attempted murder, housebreaking, stealing, causing harm and arson.
Sixty-one OPD clients accepted a plea bargain between January 2017 and December 2022, including 24 for armed robbery and nine for murder.
In that time, 23 people were convicted for armed robbery, and six were acquitted; three were convicted of unlawful sexual intercourse, and two were acquitted of that offence; 12 were convicted of murder, and two were acquitted of murder.
At the Court of Appeal, OPD appeals were allowed 59 per cent of the time.
Chief Public Defender Stanley Rolle, one of just six attorneys at the OPD, said they had provided legal services in about 400 matters since 2017.
“(Demand is) heavy in that there are not as many criminal attorneys at the criminal bar as there are with civil and the other fields,” Mr Rolle said yesterday. “I think one of the things that cause persons not to really utilize all of the other attorneys is the remuneration. Many people can’t afford it. Most of the people who come before us, they hold close to minimum-wage jobs. Some don’t work every day. Some of them may have one or two children so it isn’t easy because they honestly can’t afford it.”
Mr Rolle said the OPD has seen an increase in potential clients this year.
“I think the court is really trying to reduce the backlog of cases,” he said. “We’ve been trying to encourage persons to take a plea deal. The thing is, a client has to first make a choice, because it’s his decision. Our goal is to get the best possible outcome for you. So we look at the plea arrangement.
“I think for myself, I don’t think I took vacation from 2017 until we put those COVID-19 protocols in place. You don’t want to turn anyone away. We try to meet the courts’ calendar for a trial rather than delay, particularly if defendants are more than likely to be found not guilty.”
Mr Rolle continued: “What we try to do in this office is try to strike a balance. The courts are sympathetic to the fact that we could use one or two additional attorneys, but the judges assist us to the extent that we are able to manage our calendars better.”
A goal of the government with the OPD was to decrease reliance on the Crown Brief system, which pays defence lawyers per appearance, sometimes at a high cost.
Mr Rolle said the Crown Brief system is still used sometimes.
“At one point, all matters were coming to this office,” he said. “But they still do the crown briefs, particularly in cases where it’s three persons in one matter and of the three persons in the matter, one of them is (against the other two). So, you know, it’ll be hard for us to really represent all three.”