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Editorial: Mrs Harrison Henry’s big job

Published:Monday | January 19, 2015 | 12:00 AM

When she takes office this week as Jamaica's third, and first female, public defender, Arlene Harrison Henry will have the opportunity to mould the office into something akin to the institution it was meant to be after a decade and a half of uncertainty.

On paper, she has the credentials for the job. The issue is whether she has the vision and the will.

First, what the job of the public defender is, or isn't.

Mrs Harrison Henry's job isn't like those of similar title in America, where the public defender represents criminals who can't afford lawyers.

In Jamaica, the public defender's role is to protect the rights of citizens against the actions of the State and its agents, where their behaviour has caused, or may trigger, an injustice to the constitutional rights of a citizen. Indeed, the public defender has wide powers of investigation and authority to help complainants seek redress.

There are many such cases in Jamaica, where a muscular State, faced with underdeveloped civil-society institutions and the inability of individuals to privately test the boundaries of its power, is likely to tread unrestrainedly on the agreed rights of the citizenry. The Public Defender Act of 2000 was a sound attempt to help citizens enforce the boundaries.

The first holder of the job, the respected defence lawyer, Howard Hamilton, broke ground in championing the rights of prisoners and seeking recognition of Rastafari as a legitimate religion, including the use by its adherents of marijuana as a holy sacrament. Indeed, the efforts of the mild-mannered and urbane Mr Hamilton would have contributed significantly to the commitment by the Jamaican Government to generally decriminalise the use of marijuana.

But Mr Hamilton did not, this newspaper believes, sufficiently confront the indignities, including the diminution of their rights, so easily and callously heaped on Jamaicans by agents of the State. If he did, or attempted to, his efforts did not capture the imagination of the people.

Mr Hamilton's successor was a blowhard, who conflated the sound of his voice and scramble for the limelight with substantive action. When he actually did things, such as the office's investigation of the 2010 events in Tivoli Gardens, the effort - as has been demonstrated by the witness statements by residents at the commissioner of enquiry revealed - were hardly thorough, or effective.

Indeed, Earl Witter extended his misadventure beyond his formal tenure as public defender. He will have made it more difficult for Mrs Harrison Henry to succeed.

In a dash for centre stage and on the pretext of advancing her cause, Mr Witter attempted to belittle the claim to the office by his former deputy and, until today, acting public defender, Matondo Mukulu.

He made a mistake in appointing Mr Mukulu, Mr Witter said.

Mrs Harrison Henry will now have to waste time sidestepping these distractions and smoothing ruffled feathers. But as a lawyer of long standing, who has served in key administrative positions, including as president of the bar association, we presume she has the skills. Her role as a rights campaigner, including being president of the Independent Jamaican Commissioner for Human Rights should also stand her in good stead.