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Editorial | Debating and financing justice

Published:Monday | October 3, 2016 | 10:00 AM

Delroy Chuck wouldn't, we expect, be numbered among the know-nothings who lawyer Peter Champagnie accuses of hijacking the ongoing debate about how to improve Jamaica's justice system. Neither, we believe, are Michael Lee-Chin and the members of his Economic Growth Council (EGC) cast among those with "absolutely no experience in the subject" upon which they pontificate.

In the event, the EGC has joined the discourse, insisting that the "slow pace of the administration of justice" is an obstacle to citizen safety and security and, therefore, an encumbrance to economic growth and development. It is an assumption that not only makes sense, but is a matter in which all Jamaicans have a stake.

There are two important factors here. First, the resolution of legal disputes and the clarification of laws and/or regulations by a credible and efficient judicial system are critical to the conduct of business and commerce. Long delays waste time, cost money and deter investment.

Second, there are credible data indicating that Jamaica's high crime rate is a disincentive to economic activity, snipping more than five per cent annually from the value of economic output. Fixing crime is multidimensional. But it is not helped by a court system with a backlog of more than 400,000 cases, more than half of which are criminal matters.

As the EGC said in the broad outline of its strategies to address these problems, whose cure, it argues, would be a fillip to growth: "Justice only determines crime if the punishment is swift, certain and severe, but the dysfunctional court system today means that punishment is neither swift nor severe."

The EGC has recommended a range of administrative and legislative changes that Mr Lee-Chin's group believes would enhance efficiency and transparency in the court. But some, such as the digitisation of court records, will demand substantial investment. So, too, will the promise by Mr Chuck, the justice minister, to increase the number of judges in the parish, Supreme and appeal courts, while providing them with support staff and infrastructure. Such improvements, if they happen, would make it easier to hold judges accountable.

 

PIECEMEAL APPROACH

 

What, however, is not yet clear is the cost of these judicial upgrades and how they are to be paid for. In the past, lack of funding has contributed to a slow, piecemeal approach to, and the failure of, judicial reform. Doing right this time will require a substantial reallocation of capital from other sectors of the law-enforcement and justice systems. Given the real problems elsewhere and the competing demands for limited resources, the Government will need to build consensus on the priority of these reallocations.

Moreover, the funding of law-enforcement and justice systems has to be sustainable, and not subject to the short-term vagaries of the Budget process. In this regard, we believe that the model employed by regional governments for the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) is one that Jamaica should consider for its judicial system, or parts thereof, perhaps for the ongoing upgrading of technology and other services.

The CCJ was launched with a US$100-million trust fund, the returns from which are intended to finance the operations of the court. Recent market conditions have caused some slippage on the original capital, but more than a decade on, the arrangement has worked reasonably well. Jamaica could learn from, and adapt, the system to its own needs.