EDITORIAL - A breakdown in governance
It's hard to imagine that not all Her Majesty's courts throughout the island are equipped with vaults for the safe keeping of evidence gathered in connection with court cases. But this is what Auditor General Pamela Monroe Ellis discovered when her department conducted an audit of the Corporate Area Resident Magistrate's Court (Civil Division).
In her report for the 2012-2013 period, the auditor general said she found a safe with 41 items of jewellery, including gold and precious stones, foreign currency and crack cocaine. This safe was in the custody of the court's accountant, Mrs Monroe Ellis told the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament earlier this week. Apparently, the practice of keeping valuable items of evidence in accountants' safes is fairly common.
While the auditor general was able to confirm that these were items of evidence, there was no inventory and no record with details about the items. That is an unacceptable state of affairs, and it is natural that anyone hearing of this would question the competence and commitment of those whose jobs include overseeing the justice system.
The risk that official powers may be abused is best tempered by rigorous oversight. There is enough anecdotal evidence to conclude that this oversight is sadly lacking in our justice system. From the point of investigation through to the arrest of suspects and the eventual presentation of evidence in court, there are serious gaps in performance and accountability.
We can now add safe keeping of evidence, or the lack thereof, as one more obstacle that makes the Jamaican justice system inefficient and ineffective. The result is that the system is clogged with old cases; innocent persons are kept in custody for no good reason - some even die; and sometimes the guilty are allowed to walk free.
All of this means many people no longer seek to settle their differences in court. They simply take matters into their own hands and opt for street justice.
Broadly, evidence refers to anything that can be used to determine the truth of a matter that is before a court of law, and the bulk of evidence is usually gathered at crime scenes. It is crucial that this evidence be properly protected at all times because a case is won or lost on the strength of the evidence presented.
Responding to the auditor general's report, the ministry, through its permanent secretary, Carol Palmer, says it will move to provide secure vaults to keep items submitted as evidence in resident magistrates' courts (Civil Division). It has compiled a list of which courts are in need.
We accept that the police and court staff have a finite amount of space in which to store the volume of property and items that may fall into police custody. However, special provisions must be made for valuable items to be properly inventoried and stored.
Justice needs a fundamental shift if it is to properly fulfil its basic role of effective and fair policing, efficient and thorough prosecutions, and conviction outcomes.
For many decades, the approach of our police, court administrators, the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and Attorney General's Department has not been robust in responding to the demands for justice from a wide cross section of society.
And even though we often hear of initiatives to reform the criminal justice system, examples of grave injustice are brought to light with regularity. In a sense, therefore, it is not merely the criminal justice system that has broken down; it is the entire democratic form of governance.
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