Editorial: Strengthening parish courts
It should have happened long ago. We are, therefore, glad that the amendment to the law for the operation of the resident magistrate's courts was squeezed into the last day's work of the House, rather than dying with the Parliament, hopefully to be resuscitated after the new legislature is elected. That, sometimes, never happens.
Not surprisingly, most attention to the bill has focused on the formal renaming of the island's resident magistrate's courts to parish courts and that magistrates will now be officially referred to as judges. That, perhaps, will enhance the prestige of these courts for some people, but as a practical matter, it will, of itself, mean little.
For, already, the people who interact with the magistrate's courts, who are the overwhelming majority of the users of the judicial system, perceive the presiding officers as judges and refer to them thus.
There are, however, other important and potentially far-reaching undertakings in the amendments that are aimed at streamlining the court system at all levels, thereby enhancing efficiency. Additionally, the change will implement a concept that is deeply appreciated but not clearly demarcated at this tier of the court system: the separation of powers between the political executive and the judiciary.
While Jamaican magistrates have a reputation for independence, and there are no recent claims of attempt at political interference in their work, they are, up to now, essentially civil servants who do not share the same security of tenure as judges of the Supreme Court. Nor are they clearly subject to the direction of the chief justice. The latter is about to change.
Each parish will have a chief judge of the parish court - a post which we assume to be roughly analogous to the current senior resident magistrate - who will have administrative responsibility for the courts in the parish and to whom the other judges will report. The chief parish judge, in turn, will "report directly to and be subject to the direction of the chief justice".
PERFORMANCE OF JUDGES
Another significant addition to the system will be legal officers, reporting to the chief parish judges, to be responsible for research, support services, and matters relevant to the operational management of the courts in each parish. The chief judges of the parish should have more time to focus on the performance of judges under their charge, including the quality of their work and the efficiency with which it is done.
These, on the face of it, will allow for a synchronisation of the court system at all its levels, making it easier to establish common direction and management priorities so as to more efficiently deliver justice at the highest quality. For instance, it ought to be easier to establish sentencing guidelines and for the chief justice to have an overarching picture of what takes place in these courts and what will be necessary to dramatically reduce its backlog of more than 200,000 cases.
Further, we like the move towards accountability.
The next move in this reform should, perhaps, be entrenchment of parish courts in the Constitution. Maybe this can be tackled when Parliament revisits the establishment of the Caribbean Court of Justice as Jamaica's final court.