Editorial | Justice Sykes’ bold covenant
Justice Bryan Sykes risked his national broadcast Sunday night, to mark his first year as head of the judiciary, being dismissed as a bit of self-serving pomposity. As it turned out, the chief justice’s address was a significant step towards building a culture of inclusiveness in the judicial system, but more important, he declared benchmarks by which its performance is to be judged.
There is good reason for such an action. As Justice Sykes would be aware, and as has been revealed in too many studies, including Vanderbilt University’s biennial surveys of attitude towards democracy, the judiciary is among the institutions that enjoy low levels of trust among Jamaicans. Indeed, in Vanderbilt’s latest report, for 2016-17, the expectation of Jamaicans of having a fair trial, on a scale of zero to 100, is less than half. This is part of a broader perception that the island’s institutions of democracy are corrupt.
Among the drivers of this perception about the court is, no doubt, the slow pace, given its huge backlog, at which it delivers justice. Depending on who provides the figures, there is somewhere between a quarter and half of a million cases backed up in the system, with the problem more acute in the parish courts, with which Jamaicans interface most.
However, it is the High Court which tends to command greater focus and which Justice Sykes appears to be making the subject of his immediate attention. We are all aware of the anecdotes about cases that have languished in the system for decades; of the many adjournments in hearings; and of the long delays in the delivery of judgments when trials are complete.
Sociopolitical consequences apart, a slow judicial system, with a snail-paced resolution of commercial disputes, imposes costs on doing business and, thus, constraints to economic development, including the transformative ideals set out in the island’s Vision 2030 document, with which the chief justice underpinned his remarks.
“My vision is for our judiciary to be the best in the Caribbean region in three years and among the best in the world in six years, beginning March 1, 2019,” he said.
With Justice Sykes’ benchmark, Supreme Court cases are to be disposed of within 24 months, which we interpret to mean time between the filing and delivery of rulings. Indeed, he has committed to the delivery of all outstanding judgments by the end of this year, and that, starting in 2020, there will be a benchmark of three months for their delivery, and 180 days for exceptional cases. Further, probates and letters of administration, once all documents are in place, should take no longer than 12 weeks, and divorces, 16 weeks.
These benchmarks, of course, should be read in concert with the annual statistical reports that have been produced by the courts over the last three years, which should help to test aspiration against actual performance. For example, while around two-thirds of divorce cases are completed within two years, the rest can take much longer. In this regard, it might be useful if Justice Sykes sets out his new performance standards against current data and has these popularised to excite people’s expectations of change.
Further, it is not clear, except for moral suasion, what instrument of enforcement the chief justice has to use against those on the Bench who lag on the new standards.
In this regard, we have two suggestions.
One is that these benchmarks should be developed into a charter, a covenant between the judiciary and the people it serves, to be signed by all judges. This would be a moral undertaking.
Second, perhaps it is time for the justice minister, Delroy Chuck, as he has threatened in the past, to, after appropriate discussion and debate, lock these and other benchmarks, including the commitment of requisite resources, to legislation.