Hugh Small, Contributor
There are good reasons why the Jamaica Justice System Reform should give priority to the administration of criminal justice. An article titled 'Ghetto justice - no cops needed, Community courts order residents to behave or be punished' in The STAR newspaper of July 19, 2007, reported that several inner-city communities have established their own court systems which have been enforcing their orders by strict punishments.
This has been done in an effort to drive away unwanted police attention. These community tribunals are "responsible for most, if not all, legal matters". These courts challenge the State system of justice that is enshrined in the Jamaican Constitution to guarantee the democracy andfreedoms that it is designed to protect.
The STAR report quoted a resident as saying that citizens do not send anybody to make complaints at the police station because, "wi nuh inna nuh informa ting" (we are not police informers). Superintendent Delroy Hewitt confirmed that he was aware of these court systems which have "their own judge, jury and executioners". These 'courts' order punishments in the form of beatings, the breaking of bones and sun-dance. Sun-dance is a punishment in which an individual is ordered to kneel on bottle-stoppers in the sun for prolonged periods. Another police officer told The STAR that it was interesting that someone would prefer to be beaten for one whole day, as opposed to getting the aid of the police who might help in finding a "not-so-harsh resolution".
This was not the first time that The STAR reported on the existence of community courts. In an earlier article on July 31, 2006, titled 'Ghetto Justice, Better Justice?', it was reported that:
"The fact that some Jamaicans believe ghetto justice is far more effective than having the person go through the normal justice route reflects badly on the system. Unfortunately, this is not a belief held by few Jamaicans and it is one that needs to be addressed … The Government needs to address the public's problems with the system and restore the faith of Jamaicans in legal justice."
These reports have serious implications for the Jamaican society. While the recently published Justice System Reform Report addressed the "decrease in public confidence in the justice system" and the existence of "public distrust about the courts", the report did not deal with the existence of what The Star refers to as ghetto courts. No reference was made to these systems during the programme of public consultations which the task force organised. The report made reference to the views expressed by members of the public that the official system is "on the brink of collapse" and, recognising that "without public confidence the justice system cannot fulfil its role effectively in contemporary Jamaican society."
Our concern should be about the existence of circumstances that permitted or encouraged the development o courts. Does their existence reflect the hardening of attitudes towards the police and official law enforcement agencies of the State? To what extent does their existence reflect a response to the time it takes for cases to be processed through the State system? For how long have these community courts existed? How widespread are they? Is their influence growing or is their existence confined to those inner-city communities where organised crime has a dominant hand? What is the extent of their influence over dispute resolution; is it confined to criminal offences or does it also include the resolution of disputes relating to business and commerce? What impact do these tribunals have on businesses that operate within or near to the geographic areas in which organised crime has a significant or dominant hand?
Human rights issues
The recent STAR story raises important human rights issues. Why have inner-city communities been allowed to operate 'courts' with their own judges, juries and executioners? Why has nothing been done, especially when they are said to impose punishments that would be regarded by the formal justice system as being cruel and inhuman? Why have no steps been taken to bring this matter to public attention? If the existence of these courts is accepted in these communities as a preferabl to the formal system, what does this mean for nurturing awareness for the right to challenge abuses of human rights by the citizenry and the police?
The issue raised by the existence of ghetto or community courts is whether the State should have a monopoly on the administration of justice, the imperative that Justice System Reform must be given the highest priority.
The existence of ghetto courts is not far removed from reports that surface from time to time of citizens taking the law into their own hands and administering vigilante justice. Usually, this occurs where a community decides that it will not hand over assumed wrongdoers who have been caught where there has been a series of robberies, praedial thefts or other crimes that have been occurring frequently. The community considers that they are the victims. They feel that if they hand over the wrongdoers to the police it will take forever for the criminal justice system to deal with their complaints. They see themselves as the victims of a weak system of policing and justice. They take the law into their own hands. Victims become victimisers. The whole community joins the ranks of wrongdoers. When the police arrive nobody tells. If we are not careful, this will become a normal practice and the criminal justice system, the rule of law and respect for human rights will be further eroded.
Recently, the President of the Court of Appeal commented on the appalling number of extrajudicial killings of citizens at the hands of agents of the State and noted that he was further stunned by the nonchalant response of those in authority. He also observed that extrajudicial killings must be minimised with haste and one method of attempting to deal with the problems is by constant exposure of the details. The exposure by The STAR newspaper of the existence of extrajudicial injustices in ghetto communities brings to public attention a matter that should be of concern to all well-thinking people. There should be the same level of exposure of these occurrences as that which Justice Panton advocates for killings by representatives of the State. If we fail to attend to this evil, members of these communities will cower and cringe as more and more injustice sweeps its contagious and evil influence into other sections of our society.
Time is not on the side of the official law and order system. There are some problems that must be nipped in the bud. We must act now. Failure to act decisively will lure sections of our country into the belief that a parallel criminal justice system is acceptable.
Hugh Small is a former Jamaican minister of government and retired judge of The Bahamas Supreme Court.