Laws of Eve: When will Jamaica's family justice system be reviewed?
As I considered what topic I should cover in this week's article, I visited www.familylaw.co.uk, and came across an article titled 'Family Justice Review panel publishes interim report - The family justice system is 'too complicated', says panel'. I dug deeper, and there was another report from New Zealand, and several references to reform agenda.
I then recounted some of the experiences I have had in the Jamaican Family Courts over the years. That is when I decided that, this week, I will overlook the fact that Jamaica's entire justice system continues to receive low marks for failing to ensure the timely delivery of justice. Instead, I will focus on the family justice system.
When I refer to the family justice system, I think of every divorce petition, application for custody or guardianship, maintenance, domestic violence, and juvenile offence that must either come within the Family Division of the Supreme Court, the Family Court (in the three parishes where one exists) or the Resident Magistrate's Court (in parishes where there is no Family Court). Within every group of matters, I have heard complaints such as those below:
1. There are lengthy delays in concluding family matters. The chronic problems with divorce matters persists, and despite the best efforts of the resident magistrates, there are just too many children cases on each day's court list to be concluded in a single day.
2. There is a need for specialist judges and magistrates to hear and determine family disputes, and there is no consistency in how family disputes are handled.
3. Matters are delayed because probation and means reports are not completed in a timely manner. This may simply relate to the low number of probation officers who serve the family courts.
4. The courts are so congested that it can take several hours before a matter goes before a resident magistrate for consideration. A visit to the Corporate Area Family Court will show that persons often stand in corridors or sit on steps while waiting for cases to be heard.
5. No privacy is afforded to a person to discuss matters with court staff. Persons who wish to speak with court staff often do so through glass barriers with small holes in them and, deeply personal and private matters are sometimes discussed with other members of the public in close proximity.
6. The number of court rooms and magistrates dedicated to handling family matters are inadequate.
7. Family Courts are situated in buildings that are usually too small, not properly designed for the purpose and have no parking facilities in close proximity. Here are two examples, in Portmore, the court room is a small quad, so persons must sit under tents outside while waiting to get inside. And in Kingston, you must climb three flights of stairs to get to the court rooms. There are also no parking facilities available for the persons who must visit the courts.
8. None of the courts have adequate rooms to facilitate meditations, caucuses or other discussions among parties.
9. The procedure to follow to get redress in family courts is usually too complicated for the usual users of those courts. Where can someone find a brief outline of the steps a person must take to get a domestic violence order?
10. It is difficult to conclude that the needs of the child are the court's highest priority. With the best intentions, the outcomes which usually come after lengthy delays, cannot be said to have the child as its primary focus. Could prescribed time frames within which matters are to be concluded established?
In my view, this list, which is by no means exhaustive, is sufficient to justify a review. In fact, the perfect starting point would be a survey among the users of the family justice systems to ascertain where the critical deficiencies lie, so that some thought can be given to what changes may be attainable in the short-term.
I wish to invite users of the family justice system to share their concerns with me so that we can lobby for changes to address the problems before it is too late.