• JIS News

    The Legal Aid (Fees) (Validation and Indemnification) Act 2021, which validates payments that were made to the 42 attorneys-at-law involved in two high-profile trials, was passed in the Senate on Friday (July 2).

    The payments were made to attorneys-at-law who provided legal-aid services in the Queen v Uchence Wilson and Others as well as the Queen v Carlington Godfrey and Others trials.

    In the circumstances leading to the trials, 34 persons were arrested and charged in 2019 with offences under the Criminal Justice (Suppression of Criminal Organisations) Act, more commonly referred to as the Anti-Gang legislation, for the commission of gang-related activities.

    These persons were allegedly a part of a major organised criminal network dubbed the ‘Uchence Wilson Gang’ and the ‘King’s Valley Gang’. When they appeared before the court, they sought assistance for their defence under the Legal Aid Act.

    Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, Senator the Hon. Kamina Johnson Smith, who piloted the Bill, noted that under Jamaican law, every person charged with a criminal offence is entitled to defend himself in person or through legal representation of his own choosing or if he does not have sufficient means to pay for legal representation, to be given such assistance as is required in the interest of justice.

    “Beyond our Legal Aid Act, as a signatory to the Major International Human Rights Treaties, Jamaica’s obligation to offer its citizens access to legal aid is also grounded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, and the American Convention on Human Rights,” she said.

    Mrs. Johnson Smith, who is also Leader of Government Business in the Senate, pointed out that these documents illustrate the universal acceptance that the State is primarily responsible for providing non-discriminatory accessible legal aid, especially for individuals who lack the financial means to pay for such service.

    She further noted that the Constitution also guarantees a fair hearing to each person charged with a criminal offence and also directs that that person should be presumed innocent until proven guilty or has pleaded guilty.

    “So, the provision of legal aid is important even in cases where the accused is facing multiple charges for heinous crimes and or where the accused is said to be involved in a major criminal enterprise,” the Senator pointed out.

    Mrs. Johnson Smith noted, however, that in the two matters, the Legal Aid Council encountered difficulties in assigning suitable attorneys to provide legal-aid services to the accused persons, given the magnitude of the trials, and the complexity of the issues and the anticipated length of the trials.

    “The attorneys-at-law indicated that a trial of this nature would require considerably more resources than the tariff of fees prescribed under the Legal Aid Act and the trial could not commence, as the defendants were not represented and this, ultimately, threatened the defendants’ right to a fair trial,” she explained.

    She noted that in addressing the issue, the Minister of Justice, Hon. Delroy Chuck, convened consultations between the Legal Aid Council and attorneys-at-law and ultimately made arrangements for representation for the accused.

    “Due to the extraordinary circumstances, the unprecedented nature of the trial and the need for urgent action to ensure justice for the defendants, the tariff of fees was varied and the payments were made to the attorneys-at-law in respect of services rendered in the two cases,” Mrs. Johnson Smith said.

    She noted that payments to the attorneys in the Uchence Wilson matter were made in five stages between March 2019 and December 2020. The trial for Carlington Godfrey and Others lasted for six months from January 2020 to July 2020 and the payments were made to 14 attorneys in December 2020.

    “In summary, the duration of both the Uchence Wilson and Carlington Godfrey trials was 25 months with a combined total of 34 defendants, and a combined total of 42 attorneys-at-law represented the defendants in both trials,” the Senator informed.

    The Bill now seeks to validate the payment of fees made under the varied tariff and to indemnify persons liable to be proceeded against in respect of those payments.

    Specifically, Clause 2 of the Bill declares that the payments in good faith by the Legal Aid Council and all persons acting on behalf of or in support of the Legal Aid Council made to attorneys-at-law in the R v Uchence Wilson and Others trial, and those in the R v Carlington Godfrey and Others are valid and lawfully done.

    Clause 3 provides that every person liable to be legally proceeded against on the grounds that the payments were not lawfully made is freed, acquitted and indemnified.

    The Bill was passed in the Lower House on Tuesday (June 22).

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