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St Thomas farmers' long wait exposes court system weakness

Published:Sunday | August 17, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Barbara Gayle, Justice Coordinator

A four-year delay in getting a ruling from the Supreme Court has been frustrating more than 50 farmers in Abbey Green, St Thomas, who want an end to a legal battle which began in 2007 with Tropicrop Mushrooms Ltd.

"It is a long time and we feel let down," one of the farmers said last week when he raised concerns about the long wait to get the judgment which was reserved in 2010.

Donovan Walker, president of The Jamaican Bar Association (JBA), says the JBA is concerned about occasional reports of the inordinate length of time that some users of the Jamaican courts experience in awaiting the delivery of judgments in their matters. He stressed that a lack of human and other resources in the court system assists in creating backlogs.

One of the solutions to the problem, Walker pointed out, was for each judge to be assigned a properly trained attorney-at-law as a judicial clerk.

He also highlighted a number of problems in the system which needed to be addressed and said "perhaps the time is approaching where judges in egregious circumstances will have to answer to the General Legal Council or the Judicial Services Commission for gross acts of negligence".

Judicial clerks need

A Supreme Court judge admitted that there were outstanding judgments and agreed that judicial clerks would help to expedite the judgments.

The judge said, at the moment, only a few judges were assigned judicial clerks and the other judges had to do research and write judgments.

He said some judges did not have their own chambers and had to be using their motor cars as their chambers.

On being asked to clarify, he said they literally had to be storing court documents in their motor cars.

Commenting further, he said judges "are overburdened with work" and that the situation still exists where one secretary was assigned to four judges.

He said the secretaries had to type notes of evidence, and in many instances the judgments, because not all of the judges were "computer- or technology-savvy".

"One of the major problems Jamaica will always face is that you cannot just take up persons and put them as judges without giving them judicial education," the judge stressed. He said in the Eastern Caribbean and numerous other countries, judges have to go through training and there must be a facility to teach judicial writing.

"We do things the opposite in Jamaica because you cannot just put a person in court and say that person is a judge, there must be training," he added.

He said some resident magistrates did not even know how to sentence in respect of certain offences and that was the reason for the disparity in sentences.

The legal battle with Tropicrop Mushrooms Ltd, which owned an estate in Abbey Green for the last 20 years, began in 2007 when it erected an iron gate and posted armed guards to prevent farmers from using the road to gain access to their farms.

Parochial road

The farmers and the St Thomas Parish Council objected to the erection of the gate. The farmers contended that they had been using the roadway for many years and should not be prevented from doing so.

The parish council contended that the access route was a parochial road and, therefore, fell under its jurisdiction. It objected to the gate being erected on the grounds that the restriction was burdensome to the farmers and demanded its removal.

Tropicrop, which cultivated coffee on the estate, took the issue to the Supreme Court and secured orders in February and March 2008, barring the parish council from removing the gate. An order, which was to remain in force until April 2008, was also granted allowing no more than 15 local farmers to have access through the gate three days per week.

In July 2008, a further order was granted restraining the parish council from removing the iron gate and access was granted to 50 local farmers from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays to Fridays.

The orders were to remain in force until the suit was decided by the Supreme Court. After several days hearing, judgment was reserved in 2010 but, to date, the judgment has not been handed down.

Some of the farmers were charged in 2008 with malicious destruction of property after they were accused of removing the gate from the property.

The matter is pending in the Morant Bay Resident Magistrate's Court as a decision has been taken for that case to await the outcome of the civil case in the Supreme Court.