Fri | Sep 22, 2017

Jump-start justice - Court of Appeal president pleas for more resources

Published:Sunday | May 8, 2016 | 5:00 AMBarbara Gayle
Justice Dennis Morrison
Outside the Court of Appeal building on King Street in downtown Kingston.
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President of The Court of Appeal Justice C Dennis Morrison has added his voice to those calling for more resources for the justice system, particularly at the appellate level.

"I have been frustrated from time to time by the inadequate resources," Morrison told The Sunday Gleaner.

"The library facilities at the Court of Appeal are woefully inadequate and have not improved in the eight years that I have been here," said Morrison, even as he admitted that, to some extent, this has been mitigated by the accessibility of online resources such as LexisNexis as the Ministry of Justice had taken out a subscription for those online law reports.

Morrison bemoaned the fact that the court is still short of an even basic collection of up-to-date textbooks. He noted that after years of asking, last April the judges of the Appeal Court were each assigned a judicial clerk who is a trained lawyer, and this has helped somewhat.

Morrison, who was appointed president of the Court of Appeal in January, is hoping that space will finally be made available this year for the appointment of the long-promised three additional judges in order to ease the brutal workload under which the present seven judges currently operate.

"Notwithstanding the indisputable fact that the number of appeals to the Court of Appeal has increased dramatically over the years, the number of judges remains the same that it was 50 years ago," noted Morrison.

He said that the need for more judges was recognised several years ago and the law was finally changed in 2008 to allow up to a maximum of 12 judges overall.

 

NO PHYSICAL SPACE

 

But the physical space to accommodate even the three additional judges has not being organised despite repeated promises.

The long-announced plan is for the Accountant General's Department to vacate the building it now occupies and the space refurbished and assigned to the Court of Appeal.

Once this has been done, it will be possible to appoint the three additional judges.

According to Morrison, the most recent information coming from the Ministry of Finance is that the accountant general will move by the summer so that work can begin to enable the Court of Appeal to move into the refurbished space by sometime later this year.

"I am looking forward to that because when it happens, it will certainly make for tremendous improvement in the efficiency of our court and enure to the benefit of the justice system as a whole," Morrison said.

There have been numerous complaints from lawyers and litigants about the delays in getting judgments from the Appeal Court or having cases disposed of expeditiously.

In response, Morrison argued: "There are sometimes delays in getting transcripts in criminal cases from the Supreme Court."

He explained that appeals filed could not be heard until the transcripts of the evidence given at the trial and the directions given to juries by the judges were ready.

Morrison said that while this is a problem that lies almost entirely outside of the Court of Appeal, the registrar of that court was in constant dialogue with the registrar of the Supreme Court in an effort to fix the situation. The matter is also receiving attention at the level of the chief justice

"I think the generally accepted practise in the Commonwealth is three months for ordinary cases and six months for more complicated cases," was his response on being asked if there should be a timeline for the delivery of judgments.

That is also the standard accepted in the Judicial Conduct Guidelines, which had been approved by the chief justice and circulated to judges.

According to Morrison, while this is the standard to which the Court of Appeal aspired, the fact is that it has just not proved to be possible, particularly in cases of great complexity, of which there are many.

"I can confidently assert that this is entirely as a result of the shortage of judges and the extraordinary volume of work. There is simply no question of our judges having judgments to write and just putting them down".

The Court of Appeal president said various strategies have been adopted over the years to achieve a more consistent level of compliance with the standard. One such is the delivery of more oral judgments, where the subject matter of the appeal makes this possible, and another is an effort to allow judges time out of court dedicated to writing judgments.

"Delay is a problem which we fully recognise and try to keep constantly under review," said Morrison as he added that the appellate judges are doing everything in their power to dispose of the cases expeditiously.

Morrison said that although the Court of Appeal has an excellent support staff, there is a pressing need for technological improvements, which are being stymied by lack of funds.

"The conditions under which the members of staff have to work are less than ideal," said Morrison as he argued that the space the staff work in is crammed and uncomfortable.

There is also a problem with storage of completed files with the inadequate storage area now overflowing.

"We are currently working on an updated archival policy to promote greater efficiency in the disposal of older files," said Morrison.

Another sore point for the veteran member of the Bench is the condition of the court building.

"The current physical condition of the Court of Appeal cannot be inspiring or reassuring to members of the public who come to this court, the highest in the land, for the first time."

He is hoping that this will be addressed as part of the refurbishing exercise next door.