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Unacceptably slow - Bar Association boss vows to help to oil the wheels of justice

Published:Sunday | April 17, 2016 | 4:00 AMBarbara Gayle
McGregor

The cries for justice to be administered in a timely manner will have caught the attention of the newly elected president of the Jamaican Bar Association, Sherry Ann McGregor, who has vowed to do her part to ensure that the wheels of justice turn faster.

Days after Attorney General Marlene Malahoo-Forte announced plans to meet with members of the legal fraternity to discuss measures to speed up the justice process, McGregor has voiced her concerns about the slow pace of the system.

"One of the most valuable resources is time, and we are not using it wisely," McGregor told The Sunday Gleaner last week.

"How many times do we walk the corridors of the court and the courtrooms are empty?" she queried as she charged that cases are too often adjourned.

According to McGregor, while she is aware that there is not enough budgetary support for the courts, the empty courtrooms reflect an inefficient utilisation of time.

McGregor says she has already met with Minister of Justice Delroy Chuck, Chief Justice Zaila McCalla and other stakeholders in the system to see what can be done to improve the situation.

"We are creeping back into the period where civil trial dates are too far away from the case management dates, and that shows you that something is not right," said McGregor as she expressed concern that litigants have to wait for too long to get justice.

McGregor charged that the trial of a simple matter, which will last for two to three days, is now being set for late 2017 or 2018.

She said last October she had a two-day case set for May 2017.

The Bar Association president highlighted the difficulty litigants face even to get hearings for injunctions in urgent matters, and argued that a judge should be available on call to hear such matters.

FREQUENT COMPLAINTS

One of the most frequent complaints by lawyers and litigants is the long delay in getting judgments handed down, a situation which McGregor argued should never happen.

"I am deeply concerned that we have judges who retire before they deliver judgments. We have outstanding cases, some several years old, in which judgments are yet to be delivered.

"We need judges to get into the habit of delivering oral judgments speedily and then give their written reasons at a later date, as the litigants would then know the outcome of their cases," said McGregor.

The Bar Association has long expressed its concern about the delays and backlogs in the criminal and civil courts, and its new president told our news team that while the recent focus has been on the delays in having criminal cases disposed of, there are also long delays in civil matters.

McGregor said while several measures had been suggested to reduce the delays, the system is being hampered by inefficiencies in the court's registry and the absence of proper statistics to properly define the extent of the backlog.

The Bar Association head endorsed the recommendation of the chief justice, that cases on the court list for five years and more should be sent to a special judge who would review the files and determine how to move on.

According to McGregor, this would be a very reasonable approach as it would give the prosecution and the defence the opportunity to determine whether it is worthwhile for such cases to remain in the system.

But she is adamant that in each case the interest of the accused and the victims and their families must be protected.

RIGHT TO A FAIR TRIAL

"The accused has a right to a fair trial within a reasonable time, but if that fair trial is delayed for reasons that can be overcome, then why should the victims and their families be faced with the possibility of the cases being thrown out without being tried?"

McGregor argued that when many cases are placed on the trial list in the criminal courts each week with full knowledge that they will not all be tried, it breeds frustration.

She said in the same way that the setting of civil cases for trial was revamped in 2003 so that a matter is set for trial on a specific date and for a fixed number of days, the same approach could be taken in respect of criminal trials.

The attorney warned that multiple court appearances and adjournments could cause witnesses and even victims to lose the desire to participate in the legal process.

On the civil side, McGregor said while there has been some improvement, there is room for even more, given the backlog of divorce cases.

She said with the new system, once the petitions had no errors or omissions, then they should be completed within six months. There is also a backlog with probate cases and McGregor said the focus must be to reduce the time it takes to obtain grants of Probate and Letters of Administration.

barbara.gayle@gleanerjm.com