Barbara Gayle, Senior Staff Reporter
The country's creaking justice system has slowed down even further over the last two weeks as several murder cases had to be put off because of insufficient jurors.
Most of the accused persons are in custody, some for as long as five years, and so they will have to continue to languish in custody until their cases are tried.
Lisa Palmer Hamilton, senior deputy director of public prosecutions, is calling for an aggressive public-awareness campaign to educate people, particularly the youth and young adults, about the importance of their civic duty. She said lectures could be conducted in the schools, churches, and through neighbourhood watch groups in the communities.
She also sees the need for the stipend of $500 daily paid to jurors who sit on cases to be increased. Civil servants are exempt from jury duty, and Palmer Hamilton says there is a need to revisit the list of persons who are exempt so that more persons can be available for jury duty.
A special appeal was made last year by defence lawyer Valerie Neita-Robertson for someone to intervene on behalf of accused persons "who cannot have their cases disposed of expeditiously". The plea was made when a case involving five accused, which had been on the court list for six years, had to be put off because enough jurors were not in attendance at the Home Circuit Court.
The Home Circuit Court has a backlog of more than 400 cases, and more than half are murder cases in which many of the accused are in custody.
Last week, Senior Puisne Judge Gloria Smith described the situation as "heart-rending" when she made numerous attempts to empanel a 12-member jury to try two men charged with murder, but encountered roadblocks. In one instance, six jurors were selected, and when no more jurors were available in the courtroom, the jury selection was put off until the next day to see if jurors from other courts would be available. Two more jurors were selected the next day, but when attempts to get additional jurors failed, all eight jurors had to be released and the men remanded for trial in October.
Smith stressed that for the last two weeks, she was unable to preside in a case because of jury problems. The judge said to try a murder case involving one accused, at least 26 jurors had to be present because the defence was entitled to challenge seven jurors and the crown was entitled to challenge the same number of jurors.
The week before, only 14 jurors turned up in that court, and last week, only 18 jurors were in attendance in that court.
Clerks at the Supreme Court explained that every three weeks, 1,000 summonses are sent out for jurors to be served, but only 40-60 jurors turn up each time.
Jurors are selected from the voters' list, but according to one of the clerks, the police are having a difficult time serving the summonses. Some jurors apply to be excused for various reasons, but most of the excuses are for medical reasons, the clerk said.
"It is not that we are not sending out the summonses for the police to serve the jurors, but many times, less than half of the number is served because many persons have moved from the addresses on the voters' list," a member of staff disclosed.
There are times, too, when jurors turn up in large numbers ready and willing to serve, but many times, they have to sit in court listening to cases being adjourned for various reasons. "Some of them express frustration and say it is time-wasting, and so having encountered such an experience, are reluctant to return to serve when summoned again," a member of the court staff said.
The clerks say there are jurors, especially those who are unemployed or self-employed, who complain bitterly that they cannot find money on a daily basis to attend court. "It would be a good idea if money was available to reimburse those jurors on a daily basis," a clerk said.
A policeman who serves summonses says the process is not an easy task.
"Sometimes the very person you are talking to is the person named on the summons, but the person will say that such person is not at home or does not live at that address," the policeman disclosed. He said there were genuine cases in which people were no longer living at the addresses.
The courts outside of Kingston have their fair share of jury problems, but the problem facing those jurors is usually a financial one. Most of those jurors are farmers and self-employed persons who cannot afford to pay bus fare on a daily basis to attend court."It is time the Government takes steps to pay jurors their stipend on a daily basis, and this could be an incentive for them to attend," a policeman said.
A juror, who served at the Home Circuit Court in 2008, said it was only in April this year that she received the cheque despite the fact that she had signed the claim forms at the end of her three-week stint. It is very frustrating to be waiting so long to be reimbursed," she said.
A juror, who served in the Trelawny Circuit Court in 2007, said it was only last month that he received his cheque. "I am a farmer and when I was called to go to court, I had to borrow the money and I had to wait four years before government give me back the money I spent for jury service," he said.
"It is really not fair to me," he added.