Obese Lady Justice bound to collapse
Bert Samuels, GUEST COLUMNIST
The Senate's vote to increase the jurisdiction of the resident magistrate's court to $1 million is a welcome move. The decrease in the value of the Jamaican dollar moved the jurisdiction of the court from a monetary limit of $600 to $10,000 in 1987, thereafter to $100,000 in 1995, to a further increase to $250,000 currently.
There is urgent need to put in place companion reforms to accommodate this increase in jurisdiction, which I predict will triple the case intake in the resident magistrate's court.
In 1996, we merged the two resident magistrate's courts for the parishes of St Andrew and Kingston into one Corporate Area Court. Prior to the merger, there were - between the two parishes - a total of three courtrooms and three resident magistrates presiding over civil matters only.
Today, 17 years after the fusion, we have the SAME three courts. However, in two of those courts, the time available to hear civil matters has been reduced as they have to deal, additionally, with proceeds-of-crime matters at least one day per week.
A poor pensioner who walks up to the Sutton Street Resident's Magistrate's Court to recover possession of her property from a delinquent tenant who owes three months' rental on Monday, February 11 cannot have a date for the commencement of the matter until mid-July 2013! In July, should the tenant contest the case, she is likely to have the matter adjourned to November 2013 for trial. This trial in November has a 50-50 chance of being heard.
Should the magistrate fall ill on that November date, the matter would be summarily set for March 2014! By then, the tenant would have owed this poor litigant over one and one-third years in rental!
This increase in jurisdiction allowing our overworked magistrates to hear matters worth a maximum of $1 million will require, in my humble opinion, a minimum of six courtrooms and four additional resident magistrates.
This long-overdue expansion of the physical facilities and increase in the number of magistrates is required if this court - which serves the poor, for the most part - is to have a turnaround time of not less than three months between the filing of a matter and the matter being heard. This was what obtained when I joined the profession in 1979, but since then, we have watched the system become increasingly obese, where litigants have to stand an ever-lengthening queue, awaiting their right to be heard.
Justice is being delayed because we have not upgraded the infrastructure to accommodate the increase in population and the corresponding increase in the number of matters being filed in our courts.
This forecast of a litigation gridlock is not a feature of civil matters only. Watch and see what will happen when the abolition of preliminary enquiries takes place. There will be an avalanche of matters dumped on the High Court in no time as the traffic is redirected from the resident magistrate's courts into the High Court. Hundreds of accused citizens will be left to await their trial with an insufficient number of judges, courtrooms, prosecutors and defence lawyers available to prevent justice from being further delayed, guaranteeing the denial of justice itself.
I earnestly pray that time will prove me wrong. When justice goes beyond the reach of the people, for whatever reason, we are doomed to pay a very high price, 50 years after our so-called Independence.
I trust that we will not fall guilty to be described, as Christ did of the justice system in Luke 11:46 (New International Version), when He boldly said, "And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift up one finger to help them."