Editorial | Put fire under slowpoke judges
Now that the Jamaican Bar Association has followed Hugh Small's advice and formally complained about slowcoach judges who often take years to deliver their rulings, we hope that Delroy Chuck is good on his word in aggressively attending to the problem.
Indeed, the Judicial Code of Conduct, about which Mr Chuck has spoken, should not only be fast-tracked but anchored in law. There are also other things that the Government should do, as a matter of urgency, to improve the efficiency of the courts.
Until recently, the focus on the backlog in Jamaica's courts has primarily been on criminal matters, where the count of outstanding cases is estimated at nearly half a million. In February, Mr Small, who has served as a judge in Bahamas, in an article in this newspaper, noted that the problem also exists in the civil courts, where the consequences are often counted not in the philosophical and social constructs of delayed justice but in hard economic values.
"Jamaica's Parliament needs to require accountability of the judiciary, and the Jamaican Bar Association should open a discussion on the adoption of similar legislation," he wrote. That reference is to the provision in the Guyana constitution that, among the grounds on which judges can be removed from office, is "for continuously failing to give decisions and reasons therefor within such time as may be specified by Parliament".
Last week, the Bar Association took the issue forward by giving Chief Justice Zaila McCalla a list of 62 cases, going back a decade, and names of the judges who presided over them, for which judgments, or the written reasons for the decisions, are outstanding and demanding urgent attention.
This issue is complicated, the association's president, Sherry Ann McGregor, pointed out, by the fact that several of the judges with outstanding judgments "have either retired or will soon reach the constitutionally stated retirement age".
The issue here is that the mandatory retirement age for Jamaican judges is 70, although a judge reaching that age may be allowed to continue in office "as may be necessary to enable him to do deliver judgments or to do any other thing in relation to proceedings that were commenced" before his mandatory retirement. The proviso allowing retired judges to continue for a time does not always work well. And when it doesn't, cases, including some of the Bar Association's list of 62, may find themselves in a sort of judicial purgatory without a clear path of delivery.
In the event, post-retirement extension doesn't address the continuing problem of the slowcoaches who don't write their judgments in time, frustrating litigants and undermining faith in the justice system.
For a possible solution, Mr Small drew on the examples of the Guyana constitution, as well as India's Code of Civil Procedure, which requires judges to deliver their written decision in 30 days and twice that in exceptional circumstances. He also drew attention to the position of the Caribbean Court of Justice that no judgment, for matters of extreme complexity, should be outstanding for more than six months but normally delivered within three.
We agree. So does Mr Chuck, the justice minister.
"Judges must know that they are holding up many lives when they fail to deliver their judgments on time," he said.
We now look forward to his action.