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'Fix the justice system now' - Lawyers call for Supreme Court branch in western Jamaica among measures to improve access to justice

Published:Sunday | November 25, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Michael Erskine (right), president of the Cornwall Bar Association, greets Justice Minister Senator Mark Golding. - File

Barbara Gayle, Justice Coordinator

President of the Cornwall Bar Association (CBA), Michael Erskine, has added his voice to those calling for immediate reforms to the justice system. According to Erskine, there are some glaring deficiencies in Jamaica's justice system which must be fixed.

Addressing a public forum at the Montego Bay Civic Centre last week, Erskine called for a branch of the Supreme Court to be established in St James.

"After 50 years of Independence, litigants should not have to be travelling over 140 miles to obtain justice," said Erskine.

"Justice must be accessible to the people for it to be real," he argued in front of an audience which included Chief Justice Zaila McCalla and Minister of Justice Mark Golding.

"The sad reality is that as we speak in today's Jamaica, a litigant who has a claim for over $250,000 which is not much, must go to the Supreme Court in Kingston to have his case tried.

"This is ridiculous, it is unjust and this will contribute to crime because litigants, out of frustration, will sometimes take the law in their own hands to obtain justice."

Erskine also called for the $250,000 limit in the Resident Magistrate's Court to be increased significantly.

He told the audience of a situation recently in which a man from Westmoreland travelled to Kingston because he had sued a relative for $500,000.

After the claimant waited for three years, a trial date was set.

Erskine related that the man left his Westmoreland home from 4 a.m. to get to the Supreme Court for the 10 a.m. start only to be told that the matter would not begin.

"He was told to come back the following Thursday but there was no guarantee that his case would be heard on the next date because his file could not be located in the Supreme Court Registry," said Erskine.

"I think you will agree with me that this state of affairs is unacceptable.

"We need to stop thinking that Kingston is Jamaica and make a genuine effort to make the court more accessible to the ordinary citizen wherever he is located or as close as possible to the area where he resides."

Should be priority

Erskine said while he recognises that there are budgetary constraints, the minister of justice, the chief justice and all the stakeholders in the administration of justice must make establishing a branch of the Supreme Court in western Jamaica a priority.

"We have identified two possible sites for not only this court but what we describe as the justice centre which would house the Resident Magistrate's Court, the Family Court, the courts office, the registry and the Supreme Court - all on one compound, in an elegant and well-deemed surrounding with proper parking facilities, judges' chambers and law libraries," Erskine disclosed.

He described the situation that exists at the Family Court in Montego Bay as far below the acceptable standard and embarrassing for all those who are forced to go there.

According to Erskine, the justice system in western Jamaica, as currently exists, is becoming more and more anachronistic and if certain changes are not implemented quickly, there could be trouble.

"(We) could find that what we have is a system that offers to the public more chaos, confusion and frustration than one that is efficient, relevant and accessible."

More RMs needed

The CBA president said that body is also calling for an increase in the number of serving resident magistrates in the island.

He argued that an increase in the number of resident magistrates would help to reduce the backlog of cases in the RM courts.

He pointed out that cases in the RM courts are now being set for trial in May and June next year.

Erskine also supported those calling for an urgent overhaul of the legal aid system.

"(The fact that) we cannot get lawyers to volunteer to do legal aid is seriously undermining the proper functioning of the courts, especially at the circuit court level.

"The CBA is calling for something to be done to increase the amount paid to lawyers for legal aid cases," said Erskine as he noted the length of time it takes the State to pay lawyers who perform legal aid.

He said he was paid two months ago for a legal aid assignment he did four years ago.