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EDITORIAL - Creatively use public defender

Published:Tuesday | August 19, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Lloyd Barnett is right. Priority, at this time, ought not to be, as Opposition Leader Andrew Holness recommends, the creation of a new state watchdog for human rights. It should be, as Dr Barnett says, making better - and we would add creative - use of what is available.

Our intent, of course, is not to belittle the genuine concerns harboured by Mr Holness. For the Jamaican State has a less-than-stellar record in protecting the rights of its citizens.

Indeed, this failing was vulgarly on display last week, starting with the severe beating in a police lock-up, and the eventual death, of Mario Deane, a young man who was arrested for a marijuana cigarette. The police charged three of Mr Deane's cellmates for his murder, one who is deaf-mute; and the other two apparently have mental disabilities, one of whom was himself beaten, ostensibly by other cellmates.

There was, too, the case last week in which a magistrate in the parish of St Thomas freed Gregory Lumsden, another young man arrested for a marijuana cigarette, who spent two months in police lock-up in breach of his constitutional right to legal advice and to a trial within reasonable time.

Mr Holness does not believe that the public defender, the office that is supposed to act on behalf of people whose constitutional rights have been, or are likely to be, infringed by institutions of the State has a broad enough mandate. Nor is it equipped to do the job. The Office of the Public Defender, the opposition leader says, reacts to incidents instead of, as he wants of a new body, "following trends in the abuse of human rights and making recommendations to influence policy".

Like other critics, this newspaper does not believe, despite the limitations of the legislation, that the office has been sufficiently aggressive in its application. Or, put another way, Earl Witter, the previous holder of the office, while he talked often, was far from creative in interpreting the law - and his mandate.

Indeed, on his own initiative, the public defender can investigate state entities whose behaviour he believes "any person or body of persons" to sustain injustice. He requires a specific complaint where the person (or persons) "has suffered, is suffering or is likely to suffer an infringement of constitutional rights".

It would require, in our view, only a minor amendment to the law to place on the public defender a specific obligation to broadly monitor human-rights issues and to issue the kinds of analyses and formal statements that, hopefully, impact policy. In any event, the Office of the Public Defender, which is a commission of Parliament, makes annual reports to the legislature on the work of the office. Such report, in the hands of a public defender with a broad vision of his mandate, can trespass into the areas suggested by Mr Holness.

But such reports need not be once-a-year documents. The public defender can at any time submit a report on any cases investigated, "which, in his opinion, require the attention of Parliament". This is another opportunity that can be leveraged on behalf of citizens. Further, the public defender's job provides the holder a bully pulpit that can be used to help shape public opinion and influence policy.

While supporting an adjustment to the law, and additional resources to the office, these are initiatives we commend to the acting public defender, Matondo Mukulu.

The opinions on this page, except for the above, do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gleaner. To respond to a Gleaner editorial, email us: editor@gleanerjm.com or fax: 922-6223. Responses should be no longer than 400 words. Not all responses will be published.