Sun | Oct 17, 2021

Editorial | Give parish courts stenographers

Published:Friday | March 12, 2021 | 12:07 AM

This newspaper’s recent report of the case of Michael Francis, whose conviction for fraud and forgery a dozen years ago was ruled a nullity by the appeal court, noted, perforce, the court’s highlighting of “egregious errors” in how then Resident Magistrate Judith Pusey handled the case.

But any focus solely on the mistakes made by Justice Pusey (as she now is) would be to miss a major problem that afflicts the entire court system, especially that segment of it with which most Jamaicans interact when faced with matters of justice – the parish courts. They are overburdened, under-resourced and usually slow, thereby contributing to the sense of many Jamaicans being denied justice. Yet, there are many small, and relatively inexpensive, things that can be done to improve citizen experience with these courts, thus helping to build the public’s confidence not only in them, but the entire judicial process.

Regarding the Francis case, in May 2007, Michael Francis, now 57, was deported from the United States. A month after his return to Jamaica, he allegedly fraudulently obtained a driver’s licence in the name of the person with whom he found lodgings. A month after that, he is claimed to have stolen the person’s credit card, and in a four-day spending binge racked up over J$370,000 in debt.

CASE NOT HEARD FOR 12 YEARS

At the end of July 2007, Mr Francis pleaded guilty to 20 counts of forgery, fraud, and obtaining credit on false pretence. He was sentenced to four years in prison by Resident Magistrate Pusey. Ten days later, Mr Francis appealed his conviction and sentence. That case was not heard for 12 years.

For more than a decade, the file could not be found. And when it was, and the matter reached the Court of Appeal, Justice Pusey conceded that “no note was made of what had transpired in court on arraignment”. Neither had she, as was required of magistrates (now parish court judges) when they decide to try indictable offences, formally made an order and endorsed and signed the information setting out her decision. That, in addition to the fact that Mr Francis did not have an opportunity to consult a legal representative and to mitigate sentence, the appeal court noted, was a fatal flaw.

The legal principle was the basis of then Registration Magistrate Pusey’s jurisdiction over the matter. While having case notes would not, as the Court of Appeal made clear, have affected its decision, this question of notes or, in this matter, the absence thereof, ought not to be overlooked.

Most days, parish court judges, sitting as summary courts, decide several cases on the trot. Most of their rulings end there. Only few, like Michael Francis’, go to appeal, where the judge’s notes take on added significance.

Parish judges, however, “shall take notes of the evidence in the trial of all indictments and in all civil suits”. In cases decided summarily and in petty sessions, the parish court judge may direct the clerk to take the notes. These notes are, as the island’s chief justice, Bryan Sykes, pointed out, written in longhand, recorded usually in three quire, foolscap notebooks. The parish courts have few staff to larger transcribe these notes. It is hardly surprising, in the circumstances, if some parish judges, and their clerks, in the daily grind of conveyor-belt cases, slough off on note-taking, only to get caught later on. Which, of course, is not to condone any such behaviour.

BACKLOG OF CASE TRANSCRIPTS

At least, the law allows the courts of higher jurisdiction to have stenographers and shorthand reporters to assist judges. Some of these courts, too, are being kitted out with recording and audio-to-writing technology. Even at that, the Court of Appeal continues to suffer from a backlog of case transcripts from the lower courts. The systems still have some ways to catch up.

In 2019, the latest period for which information is available, the Court of Appeal had 340 outstanding transcripts, a 21 per cent increase on the previous year. “The overall total of 839 outstanding transcripts and records effectively reduces the court’s inventory of unheard appeals by close to 50 per cent, and therefore has the potential to distort our disposal rate figures,” the court’s recently retired president, Justice Dennis Morrison, wrote in a review of the data. “But, more significantly, particularly so in relation to criminal appeals, it signifies an ongoing departure from the explicit constitutional guarantee of fair hearings within a reasonable time.” That is the rub.

It is not known what is the parish courts’ contribution to the backlog, but their situation can be improved by amending the law to allow professional note takers, and by training and hiring some stenographers. Higher technology can follow. That can happen without making the parish courts the courts of record.

Elsewhere, Justice Sykes has to redouble his efforts to defeat the historic inertia in the system. At the same time, we remind the chief justice that he has only another year to fulfil his promise to make Jamaica’s justice system the best in the Caribbean, and another three after that to place it among the best in the world. Among the measures of success is how quickly it delivers justice.