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Raffique Shah


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Lowest common denominator

By Raffique Shah
September 20, 2015

Last week, at the opening of the new law term, two main speeches were delivered.

The first was a feature address by former President of the Republic and principal of the UWI St Augustine campus, Professor Max Richards. The second was the customary speech by the Chief Justice, a kind of state-of-the-Judiciary report which, I submit, is a veritable regurgitation of judicial woes that can be re-read year after year with only minor changes to the text.

In all that was said by these two eminent men, speeches that identified a wide range of issues that impact the society as a whole, the media, and through it every Tom, Dick and Beharrylal, pounced on two sentences in Max's speech, tearing apart the ex-President for not knowing the difference between Debe and Penal, and for suggesting that the new UWI campus was difficult to access.

I agree that Max's point about the accessibility of the Debe campus was inconsiderate. He ought to have known that the extension of the Solomon Hochoy Highway makes Debe easier to access than St Augustine, and be mindful of the reality that 50 percent or more of the students who attend the local university live in Cemtral and South Trinidad.

In fact, even without the highway, and given that traffic jams are a daily feature on roads everywhere in the country, only the extremities of Trinidad-Toco, Mayaro and Cedros/Icacos-can be described as difficult to access.

So staff and students, having choices between St Augustine and Debe, or, for that matter, many of the UTT centres and campuses across the country, cannot complain about location. And if they did (to Max), he should have dismissed their concerns.

That said, it is incomprehensible how a geographical error and an academic dissention (I agree with him that the new campus should not be solely a law faculty, if that is in fact intended) exploded into the already agitated racial-ants-nest as Max and those of his ilk being against "everything south of the Caroni river".

It seems that in the aftermath of the general election, racial sensitivities have become all-pervasive, one stupid statement landed Max on top of the anthill.

No one has bothered to ask where Mrs Jean Ramjohn-Richards stands in the midst of the madness.

Nor, indeed, has there been any sober discussion on some other points he made. There is a perception that the UWI has sacrificed some of its independence on the altar of political expediency. In my view, this decline, and that of the academic and student bodies as informed contributors to debates on important national issues, began from as far back as when Max was principal, certainly after the events of 1970.

And while I am not qualified to question the quality of the thousands of graduates churned out of that paper mill every year, I hear people who are better positioned complain about declining standards.

There are also concerns about the prime focuses of the university curricula in the face of the ever-evolving jobs market and the needs of the nation, what with taxpayers funding free tertiary education and meeting staff salaries as well.

There is so much to discuss based on issues raised by the ex-President, yet all we cantankerous plebes can do is reduce the discussion to the lowest common denominator-race.

Chief Justice Ivor Archie also regurgitated (not meant to be offensive) some pertinent issues that both citizens and government need to address if the judicial factor in the wild crime equation is to help deliver us from the evil that is strangling the society.

He lamented low crime detection rates, inadequate evidence when matters come before the courts, and slow forensic analysis, all of which are outside the control of the judiciary.

Of interventions that can help, but which require support from the country's legislators, eliminating preliminary enquires and jury trials top the list. These are fundamental to our judicial system, as is final appeal to the Privy Council instead of the Caribbean Court of Justice.

If, however, we choose hold on to the vestiges of a colonialism that is long dead, we cannot point fingers at judicial officers who face mountainous obstacles in the form of thousands of cases, some so petty, they are funny, to attorneys who master the craft of never-ending litigation and trials that enrich them, to an un-implementable death penalty that must be the biggest joke on Death Row.

The CJ calls for "a little common sense" to prevail in matters such as restorative incarceration (to reduce recidivism), clogging the system with petty matters (two joints), and so on.

I hope they heed his call.

For me, I see a society in which dollars dictate sense, hence the reason we remain mired in manure that's suffocating us.

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