EDITORIAL - Overhauling the courts
Perhaps it is time to bring a bit more realism to the long-running debate over what to do about the huge pile-up of cases in the Jamaican courts - more than 400,000, this newspaper has reported - and acknowledge that as things now are there is little likelihood of making a significant dent in the backlog.
The situation may, therefore, call for a far more aggressive solution than has been contemplated, including something that this newspaper, and most well-thinking people, in other circum-stances, would probably never countenance, perhaps even consider heretical. It may be time to draw a line legislatively under the older and/or untriable of these cases so as to provide the courts, in so far as possible, with a clean slate. In other words, it would be like starting over.
This proposal may not be as radical as it seems. For, as Ms Lisa Palmer-Hamilton, the senior deputy in the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), reminded this newspaper, a task force in her office is now combing cases in which witnesses can't be found, may be dead or have emigrated, to determine how to proceed with them. The DPP may decide not to prosecute or offer no evidence when they come before the courts.
Hurdles to scale
Our suggestion, however, is for something more sweeping and would be part of a broader overhaul of the justice system, including the acceleration of some of the measures that are now being implemented. At the level of the magistrates courts, for instance, it could be decided that all live dockets of criminal matters of, say, two years and older, would be automatically dismissed.
Achieving this legislatively would obviously demand creative thinking and bipartisan consensus, given the constitutional authority and independence of action of the DPP over the prosecution of criminal cases. That is an obvious hurdle to scale.
In January, Chief Justice Zaila McCalla complained, as has this newspaper previously, about lawyers agreeing to the setting of several trials for the same day, causing delays in cases. Such behaviour must carry penalties, financial costs to offending lawyers, and where possible allowing cases to proceed, maybe with court-appointed defence attorneys.
Addressing the fear factor
Ms Palmer-Hamilton highlighted fear among witnesses who fail to appear in court as among the reasons for delays in hearings. The rules have to be streamlined to allow for the admittance of original statements to the police, as well as the use of communication technology to allow witnesses to testify from secure surroundings away from the courtroom.
We suggest, too, the end of preliminary hearings for murders and for more criminal cases to be heard by judges' panels to compensate for the shortage of jurors, in part, because of fear.Courtrooms, too, have to become better technologically equipped. And the systems must be maintained and used. It makes little sense, at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, for judges to be taking notes longhand and only rarely having, via computer, immediate access to the ongoing record of the official court reporter.
The management of the court should also be assumed by skilled civilian administrators, leaving judges and lawyers to the handling of judicial matters.
The Jamaican court suffers from an uncertainty of financial resources. The model used for the funding of the Caribbean Court of Justice, to which Jamaica contributed but is not now an active participant, is one to consider.
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