Sat | Feb 24, 2018

Editorial | Justice Morrison has our support

Published:Monday | January 8, 2018 | 12:06 AM

Unlike his predecessor, Dennis Morrison, the president of the Court of Appeal, is not a man given to venting about, or to, the press on any subject. So, when he speaks in a rare interview such as the one published by this newspaper last week, you can assume he’s carrying a lot of pent-up frustration, which he needed to clear from his chest.

On this matter, we have a great deal of sympathy for Justice Morrison’s position and support his call for an increase in the number of judges on the appeal Bench. It should happen urgently.

At present, Jamaica’s Court of Appeal comprises seven members, including the president. On most cases, three judges sit at a time, after which they are required to research and write their judgments. But it is not only these cases that account for the workload of the appeal judges. They, among other things, hear and rule motions in chambers; determine whether orders should be varied or stayed, pending appeals; decide whether appeals to them or against their rulings should go forward; and peruse transcripts, when delivered, from lower courts.

A LOT OF WORK

In other words, they have a lot to do. And, according to Justice Morrison, their numbers, constant for half a century, are insufficient to do it. 

“Our number remains the same, while the population has nearly doubled since Independence, and the crime rate has gone up, as is painfully obvious, exponentially,” he complained.

Other people, not least the legislature, agree about the insufficiency of appeal court judges. In 2008, Parliament amended the Judicature (Appellate Jurisdiction) Act, allowing for the expansion of the appellate Bench by up to another six judges. In other words, the court can have as many as 13 judges, including the president.

There has been no increase, as Justice Morrison noted in his interview, and previously in his report on the operation of the court for 2016 and posted on the Court of Appeal’s website. The impact is telling.

At the end of 2016, there were 1,569 – a year-on-year increase of 7.5 per cent - pending appeals in the court, although more than 700 of them were awaiting transcripts from the Supreme Court. Perhaps more significant was the fact while the court disposed of 144 cases, 262 new appeals were filed that year, an increase of five per cent. 

We suspect that the same pattern will emerge in the data for 2017. For as Justice Morrison noted in that 2016 report, while there is not necessarily a clear correlation between the number of new cases filed and those disposed of, this pattern, “replicated year on year, inevitably results in an ever-increasing backlog of appeals”.

PLACING BLAME

If there is a point on which we disagree with Justice Morrison is on the cause for the Government’s failure to address the matter of judicial appointments, and what else might, and ought to, be done to help deal with the backlog, on which he was silent. He places the blame on a lack of space at the appeal court to accommodate additional judges, noting in the interview that the Accountant General’s Department had only recently moved from the court complex, freeing space to be converted to chambers and, presumably, courtrooms. 

But, as they say, necessity is the mother of invention. In a crisis such as faces Jamaica’s judicial system, it can’t be beyond the technocrats, policymakers, and judges themselves to craft creative, short-term solutions to address the accommodation/courtroom issue. Further, these judges need help. The 2010 report noted that there were only seven judicial clerks in the Court of Appeal, two of them juniors. There were also five executive secretaries, and the president of the court, appropriately, had one to himself.

As we argued recently in relation to the Supreme Court, each judge should be afforded three clerks, who can be recruited from among many underemployed and unemployed lawyers being spewed out by the law schools. The cost of such appointments, including additional judges, can be met through a judicious, priority-based, strategic approach to public-sector reform.