Editorial | More support for judges
It isn't justice for either litigant or defendant, having sometimes waited several years for their case to be heard, to then wait several more years for a judge to deliver the verdict; then suffer even more years for the ruling to be made available in writing.
In one recent example, as this newspaper reported this week, a written judgement was delivered in November, seven years after the judge's oral ruling. The delay has played havoc with any intention either party to the case may have had, or still has, of lodging an appeal, or merely getting on with their business.
Indeed, such delays extract a cost from the Jamaican economy and contribute to weakening its competitiveness. That, in part, is why this newspaper has had sympathy for Justice Minister Delroy Chuck's near two-year campaign to have judges deliver written rulings within six months, as well as his suggestion that such a standard not only be formalised, but underpinned with legal sanctions.
But as disposed as we may be to the idea, it can't be implemented without improving the circumstances within which judges work and the justice system, as a whole, operates. Some fixes are easy, such as the one proposed by a High Court judge to provide research assistance to the Bench, which is similar to what we have previously suggested and Mr Chuck, in a fashion, promised to implement.
It would be inconceivable to most modern judiciaries that such little research help is afforded to Jamaican judges, who are expected to preside over and rule on increasingly complex cases that must stand scrutiny in a globalised environment. Up to not so long ago, for instance, the seven justices of the Court of Appeal shared no more than half-a-dozen, and perhaps fewer, researchers. The 40 members of the Supreme Court do most of their own research as well as draft then write their opinions. This work load, no doubt, contributes to the backlog of more than quarter million cases in the system and the frequent line in written judgements apologising for long delays in their delivery.
It makes sense in the circumstance that judges be assigned - at least one each as a start - full-time judicial clerks, who would become familiar with their judge's approach to case preparation, preferred method and style of writing, thus helping them to be more efficient in writing and delivering rulings.
Many young lawyers would be available for what, essentially, would be entry-level posts in the legal profession, which over time, would grow in prestige and become much sought-after jobs. As the judge quoted by this newspaper noted, many Jamaicans are graduating with law degrees and professional qualifications, but having difficulty to find jobs. Moreover, in addition to the full-time judges' clerks, the arrangement might be so engineered to motivate law school students to compete for the prestige of being clerks to judges as part of their formal system of workplace attachments in their professional courses.
In anticipation of any knee-jerk claim that this proposal would mean an increase in public sector employment and fly in the face of reducing the Government's wage bill to nine per cent of GDP, we point out two things. First, nominal GDP against which the wage bill is measured is not static. If GDP rises faster than the wage bill, the wage-to-GDP ratio declines. Second, the fact that you might need a few more staff in the courts, doesn't mean you can't lose many unproductive employees in, say, the central bureaucracy. In other words, public sector reform is not to be achieved with a blunt axe, but a finely honed scalpel.