Tyrone Reid and Marcella Scarlett, Sunday Gleaner Reporters
Jamaican taxpayers are paying a hefty price for police abuse, medical negligence and other forms of civil-servant recklessness.
Since 2006, Supreme Court judgments and out-of-court settlements have forced consecutive administrations to fork out no less than $365 million in damages to settle civil suits won by people who have been wronged by agents of the State.
Official documents from the Attorney General's Chambers gleaned under the Access to Information Act show payments on 37 cases of abuse, some very costly.
Jamaica's justice minister, Delroy Chuck, also revealed that the Government currently owes almost $400 million in civil-suit judgments. "And we have very little money to pay," he admitted.
Chuck, the minister of justice, said most of the money owed by the Government in civil suits was awarded in cases where the court decided that the police had abused their authority.
However, the justice minister pointed out that the $400 million in arrears does not include the $1.85 billion in damages the Government has to find to pay the Ezroy Millwood-led National Transport Co-operative Society for breaching a bus-franchise agreement. The 15-year-old legal battle ended late last month when the Court of Appeal upheld a judgment handed down by the judicial committee of the United Kingdom-based Privy Council. That figure is sure to break the $2 billion mark when interest is applied.
While many of the actual violations outlined in the official Supreme Court documents and out-of-court settlement papers occurred years ago, the earliest payment recorded in the documents provided by the Attorney General's Chambers was 2006.
It seems the Government prefers to pay off the judgments in monthly half-a-million-dollar tranches. But there are instances when a single multimillion-dollar payment was made. Between 2010 and 2011, the State shelled out $178.2 million of the $365 million ordered by the court or agreed on in out-of-court settlements. The cash-strapped Government still has to find some $129.4 million to settle the remaining 10 of the 37 cases.
Dr Carolyn Gomes, executive director of Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ), was flabbergasted by the sheer size of the payout, which she said testified to the fact that Jamaica has a poor human-rights record.
"That's a clear indicator of the high levels of abuse of our citizens," said a stupefied Gomes between sighs.
She added: "Each one of those figures represents somebody's shattered life. We must never forget that these are people."
The multimillion-dollar figure is even more frightening, explained Gomes, when viewed against the characteristically low judgments handed down by the Jamaican court. "The level of compensation ordered by the courts is not wonderful," she said.
The human-rights activist told The Sunday Gleaner that legal minds have opined that the method used by the courts to calculate a person's worth is archaic and needs to be revised.
"That's scary," said Gomes as she tried to come to grips with the facts behind the figure, especially considering that the "court cases take quite a while to settle and we don't know how many remain to be settled".
The JFJ executive director also noted that the figure may be conservative when viewed against the high number of people who decide against taking the Government to court. "I would imagine that most people don't sue, especially in false-imprisonment cases, because it is cumbersome, time-consuming and difficult. It does speak to the level of abuse," she said.
Gomes said taking the State before the court is even challenging for the JFJ that has some amount of resources and expertise at its disposal. "It is still slow, time-consuming and costly," she said.
However, Attorney General Ransford Braham cautioned that the sheer size of debt incurred through civil suits brought against the Government does not necessarily translate to a poor human-rights record, as a number of the cases were motor-vehicle accidents. "Those can be quite big commercial matters," said Braham while admitting that "the judgment debt over many years has always been fairly high".
The Supreme Court documents did not clearly give details of all the cases, but at least 13 of the 37 cases provided by the Attorney General's Chambers show police abuse.
While conceding that there are problems, the Government's lead attorney said Gomes would have to admit that the incidents involving police excesses have declined. Braham also said the rulings against the Government show that Jamaica's justice system was functioning.
"The system actually works. If the system was as lawless as some would have you believe, these people would not receive any redress," he argued.
Arlene Harrison Henry, chairman of the Independent Jamaican Council for Human Rights, also believes that the figure is high.
Henry, who has worked as an attorney in the Attorney General's Chambers, said the figure is startling because claimants in Jamaica are usually given modest awards by the court.
"It is a drain on our public resources and it is something that needs to be curbed (and) it really underscores that our human-rights violations are way too great.
She, too, is of the opinion that implicated employees of the State should pay a portion of the judgments handed down by the courts.
"Take a portion of their salary," she urged. "Until they feel it in their pockets, the situation may continue unabated," added Harrison Henry.