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Justice Jam - Shortage of judges, increase in the number of lawsuits clogging court system

Published:Sunday | January 25, 2015 | 1:00 AM

Erica Virtue, Senior Gleaner Writer

Increased litigation by Jamaicans has heaped loads of cases on an already overburdened judicial system, and this has been cited as one of several reasons judges are failing to deliver judgments on a timely basis.

Chief Justice Zaila McCalla, in an exclusive interview with The Sunday Gleaner, argued that Jamaicans are not aware of the rigorous schedule of judges who are being criticised for failing to deliver timely written judgments in an increasingly litigious society.

"They expect, and rightly so, that their issues will be addressed and judgments delivered in a timely manner, and while it is a fact that some judges do not deliver judgments expeditiously, we have a shortage of judges," argued McCalla.

"So a judge might hear a civil matter, and then that judge goes out to Circuit to do criminal matters, and might be out there for sometime, and, therefore ,take longer to return to the one that was concluded, before he or she left."

Doing other cases

McCalla continued: "On their return from doing criminal matters, you come into court again, go into chambers, and you are hearing more cases. But it's not that judges with outstanding judgments are sitting down. They are doing other cases, which may be shorter, and the judgments in those are done more quickly. Then, they work on other matters again and the original one gets pushed back."

The chief justice was quick to point out that she was not making excuses as the delay in delivering written judgments is not a satisfactory state of affairs.

"It is a fact that it can cause distress," she admitted.

However, through Bench and Bar consultations, concerns on both sides are raised and efforts made to resolve issues.

"I collate them (list of outstanding judgments), and when we have judges' meeting, I find out from the people who have outstanding judgments and get an update, including finding out why they are outstanding.

"I make enquiries as to when it might be done and encourage same. It may reach a stage where someone has a judgment too long and I might have to write a letter about it. Yes, I have done that," declared McCalla.

In cases where lawyers make complaints such as those reported by The Sunday Gleaner, she said her intervention, most times, brings a successful resolution.

According to McCalla, a timetable for a timely delivery of judgments would be a maximum of nine months, however, this would be for more complex cases.

She said in some cases, judgments may be delivered in a shorter period such as three to six months.

"It's a source of great concern to judges who have outstanding judgments. It's something that weighs on them. We have a judge who is recovering from surgery, and while convalescing, is writing judgments."

The chief justice also sought to clarify claims that some imprisoned individuals were awaiting written judgments.

"No one is in custody awaiting a written judgment. A judgment is a civil matter with two citizens bringing a claim, and for that claim to be resolved by a judge. Therefore, if the claims take a very long time to be resolved, it wouldn't be inaccurate to say that persons are hurting because when you bring a claim, for whatever reason someone squatting on your land, or has done you a civil wrong - then you want the judgment in a timely matter.

Other jurisdictions

Supporting the chief justice, Carol Hughes, principal executive officer and head of the Court Management System, argued that in other jurisdictions, judges are allowed time to write judgments. However, with the shortage of judges locally, that is a luxury that Jamaica cannot afford.

Under the Canada assisted, Justice Undertaking for Social Transformation, and as part of the Justice Reform Programme, training is provided to key individuals in the justice system.

One benefit to judges is the engagement of eight judicial clerks to assist with research.

McCalla said the principal of the Norman Manley Law School has been approached with a view to having students pursuing their legal certification assist judges with research on a part-time basis.