Tue | Oct 27, 2020

Threats to judges rile chief justice - Warns lawyers against misleading public

Published:Wednesday | August 5, 2020 | 12:33 AM
Chief Justice Bryan Sykes.
Chief Justice Bryan Sykes.

Danae Hyman/Staff Reporter

The Jamaican public has been urged to desist from threatening the Supreme Court who delivered the judgment in a controversial constitutional matter sparked by the 2018 decision to bar a girl from school because of her dreadlocked hair.

The case of the then five-year-old has triggered national outrage because hair in the black-majority northern Caribbean country has been a powerful symbol of identity that has stirred division across colours and classes.

Anger has boiled over from the cauldron of public commentary, particularly on social media, apparently forcing the intervention of Chief Justice Bryan Sykes.

Photographs of the judges have been juxtaposed with threats and derogatory remarks.

Sykes acknowledged that while the public might hold strong views on issues of justice, he condemned acts that sought to undermine the courts.

“Abuse of judges presents a grave threat to judicial independence and sets the stage for democracy to be undermined,” Sykes said.

“The publication of pictures of judges in a context where violence is being suggested is unacceptable. While expressing disagreement, members of the public are urged to demonstrate restraint.”

Last Friday, the three judges – Justices Sonia Bertram-Linton, Evan Brown, and Nicole Simmons – ruled that the child’s constitutional rights were not breached when school administrators resisted her enrolment two years ago.

Further, the chief justice chided attorneys for speaking out of turn and potentially bringing the courts into disrepute. Though he did not name anyone, Sykes’ rebuke – framed within a two-week window – appeared to be telegraphed at attorneys-at-law Isat Buchanan and John Clarke. The lawyers claimed that a Supreme Court judge had ruled in a case of five men detained under states of emergency that the crackdown was unconstitutional. The legal duo have been excoriated by colleagues for misleading the public after the writs were published a day later with no reference to constitutionality.

Buchanan also cited, moments after last Friday’s oral ruling in the dreadlocks case, that the declaration was an affront to Rastafarian freedoms.

Another attorney, Norman Godfrey, was also roundly criticised by Director of Public Prosecutions Paula Llewellyn for misleading the public when he said a witness had been purportedly intimidated in the full view of state prosecutors.

The chief justice argued that misguided announcements based on factual inaccuracies may contribute to the judiciary and the legal profession being brought into dispute.

“The judiciary is concerned and disappointed that some members of the legal profession are not heeding the long-standing practice of not discussing cases in the press until the matter is concluded, and the misrepresentation of the rulings of the court.

“Any discussion in the public sphere by attorneys-at-law, especially those involved in the cases, should be measured and proceed on the basis of accurate and reliable information,” the chief justice said.

Sykes also urged journalists to be guided by a code of ethics and to fact-check information.

“Responsible journalism is one of the hallmarks of a truly democratic society,” Sykes said.

Llewellyn, speaking to The Gleaner on Tuesday, has urged the courts to have written judgments ready at the same time oral pronouncements were being made. She said that she was “disturbed” by the sequence of events.

“I think at this time, the legal profession is put on notice, and going forward, they cannot afford to have a flaccid response. The basic rule certainly as I have grown to understand over 30 years is that you await the reasoning of the judiciary in a given case,” Llewellyn said.

“... You have a situation where you have an attorney grandstanding, then you have a gullible media practitioner who runs with the misrepresentation and it is carried, and no effort is made to do research or to balance the scale.”