Barbara Gayle, Justice Coordinator
Senior members of the private bar have welcomed the announcement that provision has been made for 20 additional resident magistrates as part of efforts to improve the justice system which has a backlog of more than 400,000 cases at that level.
However, the lawyers are concerned that a lack of office space will affect the effectiveness of these new resident magistrates.
In announcing the provision for the number of resident magistrates to be increased from 50 to 70, Attorney General Patrick Atkinson last week told the House of Representatives that Chief Justice Zaila McCalla has indicated that only 10 will be appointed this fiscal year.
In welcoming the announcement, president of the Advocates' Association, George Soutar, said there is a real need for the complement of resident magistrates to be increased.
"But where are they going to put them?" questioned the veteran attorney.
Soutar pointed out that at present, the office spaces at the courthouses in which many of the resident magistrates operate are very congested.
According to Soutar, the authorities need to find the space to put these new resident magistrates and their support staff.
Former justice minister Delroy Chuck shares Soutar's concern about the lack of office space for the soon to be appointed resident magistrates.
Chuck pointed out that some five years ago, provisions were made for an increase in the number of judges of the Court of Appeal to create a third panel to hear matters but, to date, this has not been done because of lack of space at the courthouse.
Attorney-at-law Michael Erskine, president of the Cornwall Bar Association, said he welcomes the move because the resident magistrates cannot cope with the large volume of work.
MoBay needs judicial complex
According to Erskine, the association has constantly called for a judicial complex in Montego Bay, St James to house all the courts including a branch of the Supreme Court because there was definitely a space problem.
Erskine noted that three resident magistrates were assigned to Westmoreland, but a few weeks ago one was sent elsewhere.
"This has plunged the system into chaos, the cases back up because the two RMs cannot cope with the volume of work," argued Erskine.
For attorney-at-law Deborah Martin, the increase was long overdue.
According to Martin, the increase in the number of resident magistrates should lead to matters moving more quickly through the courts.
That is a view shared by attorney-at-law Tom Tavares Finson who argued that the increased number of resident magistrates should make a dent in the backlog of cases.
Tavares Finson argued that it is unacceptable that criminal cases are now being set for trial in the Corporate Area Resident Magistrate's Court in March and April of next year.
"I am pleased that this is being done because it is one of the many steps needed to deal with the backlog of cases," added attorney-at-law Lloyd McFarlane.
The slow pace at which the cases are disposed of in the resident magistrates courts has long been a concern.
In 2006, a complainant in a criminal case in the Spanish Town Resident Magistrate's Court, St Catherine, reported that after attending court 29 times between August 11, 2003 and June 8, 2006 she believed she had become a victim to the justice system.
"All I am seeking is justice to have the case disposed of one way or the other", the complainant told The Gleaner as the case dragged on.