Sat | Dec 14, 2019

Editorial | CJ should speak on status of Gorstew judicial review

Published:Wednesday | November 20, 2019 | 12:40 AM

Among the inspirational developments of Bryan Sykes’ leadership of Jamaica’s judiciary is his promise that all outstanding judgments in the Supreme Court will be delivered by the end of the year.

As of 2020, he says, judges will have to deliver their verdicts within 90 days, or, in the event of particularly complex cases, within 180 days of completion of hearings.

That doesn’t mean, if the targets are met, an immediate end to the backlog of tens of thousands of cases. It, however, points not only to Justice Sykes’ appreciation that justice delayed is justice denied, but of his acceptance of the court’s critical role when it interprets public law, in helping to ensure the proper functioning of key institutions of governance. These are not matters to be trifled with.

In this regard, there is a case that should be on the list of those for which judgments should be ready by December 31, or earlier, whose urgency has been enhanced by the public’s increasing expectation that the business of the State be conducted with fairness, transparency, in timely fashion and appropriate oversight, to lessen the possibility for corruption. It is also likely to raise question of judicial conflict.

Eight years ago, the former contractor general, Greg Christie, began an investigation into the Golding administration’s settlement of a dispute with Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart’s company, Gorstew, over who was responsible for delays and cost overruns in the construction of a hotel developed as a partnership between Gorstew and two government agencies – the Urban Development Corporation, and the defunct National Investment Bank of Jamaica. As part of the same imbroglio, Gorstew sued for damages to its Sandals hotel brand.

Mr Christie’s question was whether the agreement for Gorstew to purchase the Government’s two-thirds of the hotel for U$40 million, including a vendor’s mortgage of US$32.5 million, represented good value and if the process was open and transparent.

Gorstew and Mr Stewart insisted that the contractor general had no legal standing in the matter and that Mr Christie, in demanding documents from them, was seeking to assert powers he didn’t have. They, by judicial review, sought declarations to that affect.

That case was heard six years ago by a three-member panel that included Justice Lloyd Hibbert, who has since retired, as judges are required to do when they reach 70. Justice Hibbert was recently appointed a member of the Integrity Commission. It isn’t clear whether, as is possible, he was asked to stay on to conclude any case begun before him.

URGENT RESOLUTION

In any event, this case is of importance on several fronts. It would speak to the court’s view on the reach, and effect, of the Contractor General Act, as it existed then, and if, indeed, Mr Christie had the powers to commence the probe. If Mr Christie had those powers, the matter would now be on what basis the investigation should proceed, if at all.

For, in the period since Mr Christie started the probe, not only has another contractor general held the job, but the post has since been abolished and its role subsumed into the Integrity Commission, which is now into its second year of operation.

It can’t be in the interest of the parties, Gorstew and the contractor general/Integrity Commission that this matter, which is likely to be appealed, whatever the outcome, remains hanging.

The issue is further complicated by Justice Hibbert’s recent appointment to the Integrity Commission, which, de facto, makes him party to the matter on which he is to rule, unless the case is to be abandoned, to start again from scratch. If it hasn’t, and on the dictum that a man can’t be judge in his cause, the case raises questions of a conflict of interest and of Justice Hibbert’s position on the commission.

These matters need urgent resolution, which can start with Justice Sykes declaring on the status of the case.