EDITORIAL - Draw a red line under old cases
We note with approval the Government's recent proposals for reducing the backlog of cases in Jamaica's courts, but warn that any gains they deliver will only be temporary without supporting initiatives, some of which, happily, are already on the table.
First, though, it is important that Jamaicans are reminded of the scale of the problem. Depending on who does the counting and the method used, there are between 200,000 and 400,000 unheard cases in the system. The latter figure, or something close thereto, we suspect, is the more accurate one.
But whatever number you use, it is huge. And, importantly, it undermines a fundamental principle of justice: when it is delayed it is denied. With many cases outstanding for several years, that denial runs deep.
In Jamaica's situation, the backlog and delay contribute to another problem - the country's extraordinarily high crime rate. Most crimes are never solved, and those that are solved take so long to be tried that the prospect of the perpetrator being punished loses its effect as a deterrent. In other words, criminals are fed the sense that they can act with impunity.
In the circumstances, the proposal by Mark Golding, the justice minister, of drawing a red line under cases, especially minor ones in the magistrates' courts, that have been unheard for over two years, is a potentially good starting point. It is similar to suggestions this newspaper has made in the past.
We, of course, appreciate that in some instances the persons who have been wronged will suffer an injustice. But so, too, are the innocent people who remain in limbo because of these delays. In the final analysis, the entire society is being called on to make a sacrifice for the common good. It is in that context we insist that any breathing space provided by this initiative must not be wasted and ought not to be contemplated in the absence of more.
In that regard, it will be important that having dismissed cases not tried within the specified period, the system thereafter remains current. This will demand management systems and review mechanisms, including effective oversight of the performance of magistrates and judges. Indeed, while this newspaper has no question about the jurisprudential quality of Jamaica's judges, we hold that, for the most part, they have proved absolutely incompetent in the management of time and processes.
It is not only in this area that the system will need overhauling. That is why we support the recent legislative arrangements for the appointment of more magistrates and Supreme Court judges. These must be accelerated as well as extended to the Court of Appeal.
We welcome the raising of the limit of the money value of cases that can be tried by magistrates, and believe that it is urgent court stenographers are recruited and trained, that new technology be installed in the courts, and those that are available, but dormant, be put into use. Building new court facilities and upgrading new ones are also necessary, but we believe that the physical facilities are less important than the quality of justice and time within which it is delivered.
Perhaps, too, Jamaica should debate a new method of financing the judicial system - via a trust similar to that of the Caribbean Court of Justice.