Editorial: We agree with red-lining old cases
Now that there is bipartisan support for the idea of drawing a red line under criminal cases that have lagged in the courts for too long, we hope that Delroy Chuck, the justice minister, will be able to implement such a policy by his proposed year-end deadline.
But as we have insisted in the past, when this newspaper and others have suggested similar initiatives, red-lining must be accompanied by a broad range of measures to bring greater efficiency to the court system. Some of these, happily, are being undertaken.
Mr Chuck's suggestion, made last week at a forum discussing justice-reform projects in Jamaica, is that cases that have been in the system for over five years and not heard be dismissed for want of prosecution "unless there are reasonable grounds for them to continue". There is logic to this idea if it is underpinned by specific legislation and not merely left to judges to implement what may be interpreted as the dictates of a minister. That crosses the constitutional line of separation of powers.
First, there is an estimated backlog of over 400,000 cases in Jamaica's court system, most of them in the magistrates', or, as they are soon to become, parish courts. Programmed efforts to clear the dockets will take several years, if ever, to complete the job, especially with the thousands of new cases entering the system each year.
Two things result: the gridlock denies justice to both the victims of crime and the alleged perpetrators of crime; and second, criminals have the sense they can act with impunity. In the circumstance, the prospect of being tried and punished by an efficient justice system is thereby lost as a deterrent to criminals. At the same time, victims lose faith in the system. This poses a real threat to law and order and weakens a critical underpinning of democracy.
It is a point we made in 2010 when in the face of a lingering six-year murder case against then 26-year-old murder accused Lance Mathias, we proposed a red-lining arrangement and it is why we endorsed the proposal when Mr Chuck's predecessor, Mark Golding, revived the idea in early 2015. Mr Golding's proposal was that cases, particularly minor ones in magistrates' courts, be kicked out after two years. It should not be too difficult for both sides - the Government and the Opposition - to settle on the kinds of cases to be subject to such red-lining as well as other eligibility criteria.
This, however, should not be considered the end of the process, but part of a wider suite of initiatives such as the upgrading of facilities, the appointment of more judges, and greater use of technology in the court system, which has begun to happen. We endorse, too, change in legislation to increase the dollar value of cases over which magistrates/parishes judges can preside and for fewer jurors to hear certain cases.
We welcome, too, the recent establishment by the chief justice to push forward old cases in the criminal justice system. This, however, is not sufficient.
This newspaper acknowledges the jurisprudential quality of Jamaican judges and has faith in the integrity of the judiciary. But we previously complained of the incompetent time and process management of Jamaican judges. It is time, we believe, that they be obligated to improve. In that regard, we support Hugh Small's proposal for legislation, in common with several jurisdictions, setting the time frame within which judges have to prepare written decisions after cases are heard. Indeed, such delays by judges are a great part of the frustration with Jamaica's court system.