Sat | Oct 21, 2017

Martin Henry | Getting things done

Published:Sunday | September 24, 2017 | 12:00 AM

So Miss Paula has finally got off her high horse of prosecutorial dignity and resorted to blocking the road! Or has she moved her office as director of public prosecutions to South East St Mary? How else do you explain the rapid response she's got to her plea of frustration and anger for filling vacancies at the ODPP? Chief Justice McCalla may have to block Justice Square.

Both women from the top of the country's justice system vented in unprecedented fashion last Monday at the opening of the Michaelmas term of the Circuit Court about the staff shortage their units were facing which made it impossible to get their jobs done in any sensible fashion.

In the Home Circuit Court alone, there are 861 cases down for trial, with 733 of those brought over from the previous term. DPP Llewellyn was furious that 17 posts that had been approved for the office a year ago for April 1 this year were still not filled because of hold-ups in other parts of the public service.

The Supreme Court is to get more courtrooms, not ready yet. "But even if they were, we wouldn't have the staff to operate them," Chief Justice McCalla complained. Plans to operate two courtrooms at the St Catherine Circuit Court this term had to be abandoned because of the staffing problem at the DPP's office, the chief justice told the public.

"But we can't block road and demonstrate," lamented Llewellyn. This manpower shortage is serious!

 

'It wasn't me'

 

The very next day, Justice Minister Delroy Chuck took to Parliament to tell the country "it wasn't me"; or him, Finance Minister Audley Shaw. The minister's explanation must not be taken lightly. We have a big problem. Cabinet had signed off on the staff request in the ODPP's 2016-2017 Budget. Implementation got stuck in the mire at Finance, drawing the ire of the aroused minister of justice who lashed the ineptitude of the government service, saying the present system is meant to frustrate rather than facilitate. "It is frustrating to deal with the public sector," he cried.

Backed by the member for Central Kingston and a former minister, Ronnie Thwaites, who agreed that many useful and helpful plans across administrations had been frustrated by obstacles in the public sector, Minister Chuck threw his frustrated hands in the air. "How on earth do you get this thing done? And when you interfere, you hear that you interfere in the bureaucracy."

For many and varied reasons, the public service has been an obstacle to executive and ministerial policy action. I once heard Prime Minister P.J. Patterson in a rare off-the-record outburst of Chuckish frustration lambasting the service for holding up implementation.

And it isn't just the staffing and resource issue which chief defender of the service, the JCSA President O'Neil Grant, has trotted out on media. There are deep quality and attitudinal and organisational culture issues bugging the service making it inefficient, bumbling and unresponsive to both political leadership and public alike. We could well say to the politicians, serve you right for cultivating such a system over many years and many administrations. But a lot is at stake for governance and for the welfare of the governed.

Noise and roadblocks have high utility value in getting things done in Government. Having vented very publicly on Monday morning, by Monday evening, Finance found it possible to call. On Tuesday, a letter for the appointments, of all 17, was in hand. But the ODPP has nowhere to put them. Only five can be recruited now.

 

Important point of fact

 

Meanwhile, the cases, especially the murder ones, keep pouring in "tsunami-like", in the words of the harried DPP, with staff complements in the ODP and the judiciary not much different from what they were decades ago.

Minister Chuck, in his near-tirade on Tuesday, made an important point of fact that must not be allowed to pass: The courts cannot possibly clear the backlog of cases and alternatives to trial like plea bargaining will have to be mainstreamed into the justice system. As well as mediation, and, very radically, screening out some old cases deemed unable to come to trial successfully. If done properly, the zones of special operations should be delivering bags of new cases to the courts, and with the operational principle of the ZOSO law that arrested persons must be taken before a magistrate "forthwith", there will be even greater pressure on the system.

In my research on what Jamaica was like in 1962, I came across the Whitely Council for the civil service of Jamaica, which had been established in 1940 with half-and-half membership by Government and the JCSA. Its purpose was to secure the greatest cooperation between the Government as employer and the general body of civil servants [Handbook of Jamaica, 1962]. Time for a Whitely Council II?

I have long been encouraging public administration leaders to speak out publicly, loudly and boldly, about what they need and don't have to get their jobs done. There is no known law against doing so in a factual and objective way, except the self-imposed law of cowardice and the law of silence. The director of public prosecutions has found her voice, mounted a roadblock, and see there now.

By-elections also get things done. We should arrange more of them. The Opposition PNP is crying foul that the Government is moving to expend $600 million to upgrade that critical corridor of the Junction Road in SE St Mary with a by-election due for the constituency. The OCG has been called in. This important office can only seek to ascertain if this important project is executed within the law.

There is no place in the world where competitive democratic politics is practised where a ruling party does not seek to allocate state resources to its electoral advantage. Let's just keep it within the law as an unavoidable, if undesirable, aspect of democratic politics. The PNP's time will come again.

Two good, clean doctor men with strong leadership track records and potential, who I know a bit, one medical, one pharmacological, are facing off in the SE St Mary by-election. It's the kind of contest where if party does not matter, it is really hard to choose between them. I wish them both well: Dr Shane Alexis (PNP), Dr Norman Dunn (JLP). The area (Eastern, then later South Eastern, St Mary) is an interesting one in its voting behaviour. It was held for the JLP by a father-and-son Ross dynasty, Andrew and Alva, between 1949 and 1989 and was then captured by Harry Douglas for the PNP, who held it for four terms with declining margins of victory. Tarn Peralto retook the seat for the JLP for the parliamentary term 2007-2011. It returned to the PNP, with the late Dr Winston Green winning in 2011, and again in 2016 by a mere five votes in a magisterial recount.

The SE St Mary by-election, in a seat where any card can play, more than the other two by-elections in the two strongest PNP garrisons, will be a raw test of the popularity of the governing JLP versus the credibility of Dr Peter Phillips as new leader of the PNP and aspiring prime minister. It is the parties and their leaders which contest elections, not the candidates.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.