Editorial | Justice delayed
There's one more reason why confidence in the administration of justice in Jamaica is being steadily eroded. It has to do with the tardiness of judges in handing down their judgments after a case has been concluded.
People who feel they have been wronged look to the courts to correct those wrongs and to punish the guilty parties. If a citizen has to wait six years for a matter to be decided, going to court in search of a speedy resolution becomes a useless and costly exercise. When a citizen feels he or she cannot depend on the courts to provide relief in an efficient and timely manner, it is at this point the thought of personally 'dealing' with such matters begin to formulate. These decisions usually have disastrous outcomes for all involved.
The Judicial Services Commission, which has the responsibility of appointing judges, should be seeking to identify persons having good character, probity, and integrity, but the prospective appointee to the Bench should have previously demonstrated an ability to efficiently deliver sound judgments and display an appetite for demanding court work. In other words, a candidate's work ethic should score high in the decision to make an applicant a judge.
During his time as president of the Court of Appeal, Seymour Panton set up a time frame of three months for judges to dispose of simple matters and six months for the more complex appeals. Alas, a shortage of personnel meant the court was never able to meet this schedule. Since then, some new judges have been appointed. Mr Panton also pointed to the caseload being carried by each judge. Finding more efficient methods of carrying out the court's business, whether it means installing audio devices to eliminate the tedium of taking notes by long hand or boosting research capabilities, is crucial to making the justice system work.
Lawyers at the private Bar are fed up with the delays. Recently, the Jamaican Bar Association (JBA) vented its frustration by highlighting 62 outstanding judgments going back some 10 years. They have called on the chief justice to outline the steps to remedy the situation. Prior to this, the JBA suggested that the proposed Judicial Code of Conduct include specific sanctions to discipline judges who are habitually tardy in handing down judgments. It is nothing short of a scandal the alarming statistics coming out of the Supreme Court. For example, one judge has retired leaving on his plate 10 undelivered judgments.
What confidence can be placed in a judge's ability to recall facts and reconstruct arguments after an inordinately long period? Is this not an abuse of an accused person's right? Chief Justice Zaila McCalla has publicly cited this tardiness as a problem. What she has not done, however, is to articulate a vision for a complete overhaul of the system to address the problem and produce more efficiently run courts.
Tardiness of the judiciary is not unique to Jamaica. In sister CARICOM territory Trinidad & Tobago, a proposal has been put on the table to withhold the pay of judges who fail to deliver their judgments within six months of the conclusion of a case. And in the United Kingdom, delays longer than six months usually result in a retrial. Some judges are given time off to concentrate on writing judgments. And in what may seem like an extreme case, South Africa has moved to impeach four judges over tardiness in delivering judgments.
The judiciary is an independent body but cannot be a law unto itself. Where is the accountability? It is an affront to the administration of justice to have judgments delivered years after a case has ended.
If we embrace the principle that justice delayed is justice denied, the chief justice must take up this matter with vigour by directing her concerns to the powers that be so that corrective measures can be taken to flag undue delays.