Orville Taylor: Chucking out the backlog
'Justice delayed is justice denied' Is a common legal doctrinal statement often credited to William Ewart Gladstone, 19th-century British politician and prime minister.
However, William Penn Jr, son of the English general who routed the Spanish from Jamaica in 1655, and founder of the state of Pennsylvania, had said 200 years earlier, "To delay Justice is Injustice."
Indeed, in 1963, Martin Luther King had also stated in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, "Justice too long delayed is justice denied." So, the ownership of this expression is, in itself, evidence of delayed justice, because it might be inaccurately attributed to Minister of Justice Delroy Chuck.
Chuck, irked by the backlog of cases in the courts, made a powerful statement at a Justice Undertakings for Social Transformation (JUST) Programme forum last week. According to him, in some jurisdictions, cases are determined within months and this ought to be so here as well. Therefore, he is suggesting that judges dispose of lingering cases that are five years or older. With great optimism, he hoped that in short order, there won't be any more multi-year cases.
Giving what looks like guidelines, or at least advice, to Her Ladyship's fleet of judges, he exhorted, "I would urge that this year, those cases, unless there are reasonable grounds for them continuing, should be dismissed for want of prosecution. It is just not fair that any accused person, even if he is guilty, has to be going to court for five years hoping that their innocence can be pronounced."
Chuck's proposal is not novel. In fact, I think I can recall hearing similar utterances from former justice minister, Mark Golding. Not having heard the complete speech, I assume that Chuck is specifically speaking about criminal cases and not civil matters. Worse, it is hoped that he is not referring to those cases involving the Government as defendant or respondent, when all manner of hurdles and obstacles turn what should be a short drive into a toll road.
On principle, I agree that no one should be kept in a perpetual state of abeyance, especially if it is because a prosecutor has failed to get her act together or a lazy policeman who is slower than gum Arabic running down the acacia tree trunk.
True, one doesn't want to see cases languishing before the court, especially those involving innocents. I must admit that I am not so understanding when they are guilty and skilful defence lawyers, who understand the system and bottlenecks, manipulate the inefficiencies and challenges to the benefit of their clients, who they go to court and lie about their 'innocence' instead of their lack of guilt.
And before the lawyers whose corns, bunions and callousness I've trampled start giving the right hand on knee-jerk admonition, let me remind them that their ethics never allows them to morally say that their criminal client did not commit the crime for which they are defending them. Moreover, the word 'conscience' does not mean con-science.
Nonetheless, there is a thin line between efficiency and expedience. And Chuck knows that Her Majesty's courts are not like a garage where vehicles are parked and will rot if left parked behind large unserviceable lorries. Actually, they might be, because oftentimes the garage owner allows pilfering to take place, thus preventing the trucks from being drivable.
Furthermore, the environment might itself not be weatherproof, and quickly the vehicles deteriorate. Then, disingenuously, he attempts to dispose of the customer's property, saying that it is taking up space, when the problem was caused by him.
One should note that the relationship between the judiciary and the justice minister is an indirect one. He has oversight for the court infrastructure and some of the court staff. However, he has no jurisdiction over the judges. Certainly, whatever the opinions from the Bar, he has no locus standi to give instructions over judicial decisions. In fact, not even the chief justice herself has the authority to interfere in an individual judge's ruling. And it doesn't matter if it is a second-rate magistrate with an aegrotat degree and the honourable minister is a Rhodes Scholar.
The minister's mandate is to look at the factors in the operations of the justice system that make the wheels of justice turn slowly. Do we have enough judges, courtrooms and equipment for the myriad cases? After all, if we have a 60-odd per cent clear-up rate of the 1,000-plus homicides in 2015, do we have enough court personnel to carry all of these cases? If the police continue to improve in their homicide investigations and arrests, can the present number of courtrooms accommodate all-day and night court, or will we have to treat some cases like Back Road lodging?
And what of those cases in the court where the police have some of the evidence, but the holes in the statutes and procedures that should have long been filled by legislative change are exploited by criminal lawyers? I bet a conversation with the director of public prosecutions and the homicide police heads will tell him about which clause brings wrath in their investigations. What causes the 'want of prosecution'? Is there anything legislative or procedural that the policymaker himself can do?
Visiting the law school doesn't make me a lawyer; but I am willing to bet that if judges follow Chuck's guidelines, it means that he is directing how cases should be determined by them. His remarks are ultra vires. True, there is a disclaimer, as he did say that if there are reasonable grounds, the matters can traverse the five years. But doesn't that reflect the law as it is? Do judges need to be told by a politician (although a lawyer himself) when a case becomes frivolous or unsustainable?
Nonetheless, if he feels so strongly about it, he can go to Parliament with his pencil-thin majority and pass the statute. Even I know that statute trumps judicial decisions.
Haste makes waste and justice hurried is justice buried. Maybe we forgot, but 1,981 years ago, someone speedily tried two men. The guilty walked and the innocent was convicted and crucified. Christians believe that he rose again. But 1.7 billion Muslims and 16 million Jews think he was simply a martyr, sacrificed by his government's expedience to please a bloodthirsty mob.
- Dr Orville Taylor, author of 'Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets', is senior lecturer in sociology at the UWI and a radio talk-show host. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.