'Ocho Rios needs a courthouse!'

Published: Monday | May 18, 2009

Carl Gilchrist, Gleaner Writer

Ocho Rios Courthouse was deemed unsafe for occupation and was closed by the Ministry of Justice several years ago. - Photo by Carl Gilchrist

There is a chronic shortage of courtroom space in St Ann even while the authorities drag their feet regarding plans to construct a justice centre in St Ann's Bay to address the problem.

As a result, Ocho Rios-based attorney-at-law Richard Donaldson of the Northern Jamaica Law Society has called for a courthouse in Ocho Rios to replace the one closed there several years ago.

The courthouse was deemed unsafe for occupation and was closed by the Ministry of Justice. Since then, persons who would normally do business there are forced to travel to St Ann's Bay.

Half the courthouses in St Ann have been forced to close over the years because of their dilapidated state.

Currently, courthouses in Ocho Rios, Moneague and Cave Valley are closed, leaving the facilities in St Ann's Bay, Brown's Town and Claremont to deal with all court matters in the parish.

On most court days in St Ann's Bay, the problem of inadequate space surfaces.

There is hardly space to walk inside the halls of the building, especially downstairs. The single courtroom upstairs may be spacious enough but the two rooms downstairs are grossly inadequate.

A tent has been erected in the courtyard to ease the congestion in the hallway but the problem persists.

Last Thursday, a woman complained to The Gleaner that she was prevented from entering the courtroom where a relative of hers was on trial.

No space

"The policeman seh no space nuh een deh," she explained.

Donaldson said the situation was unsatisfactory.

"With an increasing population, how can they expect the same facilities of 30 years ago to serve the public?" he questioned. "I would like Ocho Rios to get back a courthouse; the town needs one. If not, then we need to see something regarding the justice centre."

At the St Ann's Bay courthouse, jurors are forced to use the cramped space inside the office of court administrator Derron Smith to deliberate.

"There is no juror room, they have to be using Mr Smith's office, that little cubicle," explained one worker. She said jurors would sometimes use the courtroom downstairs when there is no court in session.

Jurors are forced to use the hallway, oftentimes shoving their way through a packed hall to find their way downstairs to Smith's office.

Security risk

St Ann's Bay Courthouse. - Photo by Caro Gilchrist

Accused who are kept in the holding area downstairs oftentimes have to be escorted through a throng of persons to attend court upstairs, posing a possible security risk.

Staff facilities are not much better. There were repairs to the flooring recently but workers complain of chronic lack of space.

Inside the office, desks are piledhigh with documents and are set close to each other.

"We are jammed up, we can hardly find place to walk," said one worker.

Smith admitted the inadequacy of space at St Ann's Bay but pointed to the proposed justice centre as a solution to this.

It is unclear when construction of the justice centre will begin. Information reaching The Gleaner suggests that land has been identified in St Ann's Bay for the construction and the authorities were now going through the paperwork.

However, a spokesperson at the Ministry of Justice told The Gleaner that there could be no confirmation of this information at this time.

It was the same chronic lack of space and subsequent outcry from the public that forced the then Patterson administration to propose the construction of a justice centre to alleviate the problem.

Long distance

But with St Ann's Bay being the site for the justice centre, the problem of persons having to travel long distances to attend court will remain.

For example, residents from Faith's Pen who usually use the nearby Moneague courthouse or Ocho Rios, which was next in line, will have to continue forking out big bucks to travel to St Ann's Bay.

Space problems aside, the St Ann's Bay courthouse building is in good enough condition.

Despite the collapse of a section of the roof last October, the mostly stone structure of the Brown's Town Courthouse is quite firm even as the space problem is also present.

Work being done

Attorney-at-law Kahadine Brown of law firm Murray and Tucker said while there was some work being done to the Brown's Town Courthouse, there were still shortcomings.

For one, there is no restroom for the public. Also, when court is in session, persons in the other courtroom can hear what is happening. Even those outside the building can hear what is happening in the courtrooms.

"Conditions are not deplorable but they are not up to standard," Brown said.

Brown also identified the unfriendly nature of the court facilities towards disabled persons as a problem common to courthouses in the parish.

A view of a section of the St Ann's Bay Court with a tent in the background