Jamaica Observer / Former Prime Minister Bruce Golding made some very interesting points and observations in his article looking at judicial independence and accountability published in this week’s Sunday Observer. Indeed, the data he shared with readers gave a sobering indication of the weight of the problems facing Jamaica’s court system.
In fact, after reading the column, we felt great sympathy for the island’s judges, even as we agree with Mr Golding that they have a duty to explain some of the setbacks that are in their power to correct.
As Mr Golding pointed out, at the end of 2016 there were, in the Court of Appeal, 849 pending appeals which could not be attributed to the non-receipt of transcripts and civil records.
He also told us that, “There were 73 reserved judgements or written reasons for judgements previously delivered that were outstanding,” which, he pointed out, were equivalent to a half of the cases completed.
When, as Mr Golding highlighted, we have more than 20,000 cases being added to the backlog each year across all three levels of the court system — Parish, Supreme, and Appeal — that suggests to us that we have a system that is not functioning properly.
This, though, is not information that is new to the country, because the growing case backlog has been reported repeatedly. The problem is that successive governments have moved at snail’s pace to have the court system improved in order to provide efficient service.
Readers will recall that last October this nagging problem was highlighted by the justice ministry during a meeting of Parliament’s Public Administration and Appropriations Committee. At that time, the ministry, reporting on its backlog reduction strategy, revealed that there are more than 2,000 cases in circuit courts across the island, with 861 serious offences in the Home Circuit alone. Additionally, there were over 35,000 cases in Parish Courts awaiting trial, some of them partially heard.
Director of Public Prosecutions Ms Paula Llewellyn, at that meeting, lamented the inadequate attention paid to the justice system over many years. “It is just unfortunate that over the last 30 years there was not a unified, holistic vision by both political dispensations in respect of the justice system… at least 40 years ago, there should have been a 20-year plan (or) a 30-year plan to take account of the increase in the population in the town centres… looking at our statistics you will see the doubling (and) tripling in crime in many of the parishes,” Ms Llewellyn stated.
Since then, Ms Llewellyn and her colleagues have had reason to believe that their cries are being heard, as a number of corrective measures have been put in place, including the important provision of digital audio-recording and video-link technology to more than 71 courts and seven hearing rooms across the island.
There is, of course, a lot more to be done. However, we share Mr Golding’s view that, “Judges cannot be chastised for not scoring if they are not given possession of the ball with a reasonable chance for a shot at the goal.”
At the same time, we cannot ignore his point that everyone who exercises authority in a democracy, including judges, must be held accountable. The challenge to the country, therefore, as Mr Golding rightly said, is how do we ensure accountability without interfering with the independence of the judiciary.
Food for serious thought.