Editorial | New committal system working
If we distill Paula Llewellyn's complaints correctly, the real problem with the parish courts is the management systems rather than the efficacy of the still-new Committals Proceedings Act. Perchance we are right, we suggest that the director of public prosecutions (DPP) clarify her concerns lest she provides purchase for those who would wish the act not to work, opening an opportunity for its dismantling.
The law to which we refer is about a year old and was passed with the aim of helping to speed up the course of justice, and, therefore, the backlog of cases in Jamaica's courts, which various estimates place as high as half a million. Specifically, it eliminates the requirements for preliminary hearings in parish courts before indictable offences - those for which trial is primarily by judge and jury - are sent to the Supreme Court.
Those hearings were intended to be as they were named - initial inquiries at which magistrates, now called parish judges, would determine whether a prima facie case was made out against an accused person. In the process, the irrelevancies would be removed and a more pristine case would reach the High Court.
At least, that was the idea. It didn't work that way.
Rather, over the decades, preliminary inquiries morphed into something resembling full-fledged trials. With a full parade of witnesses, exhibits, and lawyers seeking tactical advantages and/or dress-rehearsing their appearances elsewhere, the proceedings were slow, contributing to the backlog in the parish courts. Victims, often, were denied closure.
The new law, essentially, is about streamlining the process. Parish judges are no longer obligated to entertain lengthy oral hearings. Instead, committal proceedings, according to section (3) (2) of the act may be conducted wholly on the basis of written statements submitted to the resident magistrate (parish judge). However, parish judges, at their discretion, can authorise the taking of oral evidence at the proceedings.
REQUIRED BY LAW
Additionally, an accused person can exercise his right to make a submission that the information doesn't reach the threshold for an indictment, which, if utilised, the parish judge must take into account when making his/her decision.
If we are to make an interpretation of Ms Llewellyn's statement this week at the start of the Hilary Term of the Supreme Court, the new law has begun to have the intended effect of unclogging indictable cases from the parish courts. The flow to her office, she suggested was like a "tsunami", which will require "superhuman" effort from her staff to keep up.
Apparently, however, Ms Llewellyn's office doesn't believe that once the proceedings have been completed the documents are being forwarded to it as expeditiously as required by the law. Further, the DPP wants the latest of such material to be in her office at least a fortnight before the beginning of a Supreme Court term.
It all appears reasonable to us. And insofar as the problem she highlights exists, they suggest management issues that ought to be addressed by the new structures envisaged by the law to transform the magistrate's courts to parish courts. The danger now is that the worsened bottleneck will be at the Supreme Court if, as Chief Justice Zaila McCalla noted, there are insufficient courtrooms or if its management system is not up to the task.