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Barrington “Skippy” Thomas

Social activist Barrington “Skippy” Thomas is challenging a recent trend by magistrates to order public penance as part of their sentences.

In a letter sent to Chief Magistrate Maria Busby-Earle-Caddle, one day after the most recent incident in which a 42-year-old man was ordered to hold a sign stating “Thou Shall Not Steal” at a police station for three days, Thomas questioned the legality of such a sentence.

“Ostensibly, there seems to be no provision of law by which the sitting magistrate could have made such an order,” his lawyer Rhea Khan said in the letter.

“A magistrate is a creature of statute, he/she must act within the bounds of the law and must exercise his discretion within the four corners of the prevailing statute.”

Khan also noted that the recent case highlighted by the T&T Police Service was not an isolated event.

She referenced another from December last year, in which a man was ordered to display a sign stating, “I will not rob.” Two months later, the man was arrested for another robbery.

“It is quite frankly astonishing that the display of signage could constitute a sufficiently severe enough form of punishment for someone guilty of robbery,” Khan said.

“The fact that the same person who was previously ordered to display this sign promptly recommitted a similar offence is perhaps demonstrative of the illogical and ineffective nature of this form of punishment.”

Khan suggested that Thomas advocates for proportionate punishment but believes such a punishment is too lenient and does not consider the need to protect the public.

“Separate and apart from being unlawful and/or ultra vires the relevant statutory provisions, this policy and/or practice may be endangering ordinary citizens who have been deprived of the benefit of having such persons incarcerated,” she said.

Khan requested the legal source prescribing such punishment, whether it is included in sentencing guidelines and the disclosure of court extracts from cases in which it was used.

Khan gave Busby-Earle-Caddle 28 days in which to respond.

“We trust and expect that as the Chief Magistrate you would be sufficiently concerned and/or interested in whether or not an unlawful sentencing practice is festering within the magistracy,” she said.

As part of her letter, Khan sought to justify Thomas’ authority to raise the challenge, as he was not the subject of such a sentence.

Khan pointed out that Thomas has issued pre-action protocols over public interest issues, including charging homeless persons for failing to wear masks under ongoing public health regulations and a policy restricting feeding homeless persons in San Fernando.

According to Khan, both issues raised by Thomas were resolved without the need for litigation.

Thomas is also being represented by Dinesh Rambally, Kiel Taklalsingh and Stefan Ramkissoon.