See you in 2022! - Four-year waiting list for civil cases in the Supreme Court
A woman wept uncontrollably outside the Supreme Court building in downtown Kingston recently after her lawyer told her that the first available date for the trial of her lawsuit would be in 2022.
"How can that be?" the woman queried, as she threw her hands in the air in disbelief and shock.
"This case has been going back and forth in the court for the last four years and now I am told it cannot be heard until four years' time," she said as she cried.
The woman, whose name is being withheld, said she was injured in a motor vehicle accident and was hospitalised for three weeks. She said she was hoping that by the end of this year the matter would have been resolved.
"I am suffering because of this case because I am in pain every day and can hardly walk because of the accident, and I cannot even afford to buy medication," she complained.
A court official later told The Sunday Gleaner that there were no other dates for civil matters to be heard in the Supreme Court before 2022. He said while the civil list was a long one, the real problem is that the judges' diaries are full and more judges are needed to try the cases.
"We know the long wait is frustrating for litigants but the problem in getting the cases disposed of at a faster rate is one that the Government has to solve by appointing more judges," said the court official.
President of the Jamaican Bar Association, Jacqueline Cummings, noted that when the new Civil Procedure Code came into effect in 2006 it was designed to shorten litigation, but now a decade later, not much has changed.
"Before the new rules it used to take up to four years to complete a case. The new rules initially reduced it to between 18 months and two years.
"However, we have become a litigious society where we now sue for every little thing, and too many litigants do not want to settle cases, especially those fighting over family lands," said Cummings.
NO NEED FOR THE COURTS
She argued that some disputes do not have to go to court and can be easily resolved. "There are problems with attorneys unnecessarily delaying cases and lengthening litigation with adjournments," added Cummings, as she pointed to instances were five cases are down for hearing on one day when it is known that only one case can be tried within that time.
According to Cummings, Chief Justice Bryan Sykes has promised that such a practice will soon be a thing of the past and we will have trial date certainty.
She noted that the parish courts are also plagued with delays in the disposal of civil cases with trials now set for 2019.
Minister of Justice Delroy Chuck has vowed that every effort will be made to speed up the completion of cases with the number of judges in the Supreme Court set to increase.
According to Chuck, legislation has been prepared for some retired judges to be appointed to serve but this might not be taken to Parliament until late this year or early next year.
He agreed with Cummings that litigants need to understand that every case does not have to go to trial as they can be settled through meditation.
"A bad settlement is oftentimes much better than a good court case because in most court cases it is winner takes all, while in settlement, parties can come to reasonable agreements that is fairly satisfying to both sides," said Chuck.
He argued that in most jurisdictions mediation is utilised in more than 70 per cent of the cases, while in Jamaica only 40 per cent of cases are settled this way.
Chuck said he is optimistic that when all the plans are put in place most civil cases will be resolved within a two-year period.
The justice minister recently told Parliament that in 2017, 12,604 new Supreme Court matters were started across the six divisions (High Court Civil, Probate, Matrimonial, Commercial, Home Circuit and Gun Court).
On average, the disposal, or clearance rate of cases was 49.70 per cent. This ranged from 24.18 per cent in the High Court to 97.86 per cent in the Gun Court.
There were matters across the divisions that were disposed of in zero to six months. But on average, it took 25 months for a case to be concluded.
In the Matrimonial Division, 12.6 per cent of the cases remained in the system more than four years before conclusion.
In the Home Circuit Court, disposal of cases took between 16 days and 153 months or 12 years and nine months. But 41.14 per cent of those cases filed in this division were disposed of in 2017.
An exception was a matter in the Probate Division that was completed after 39 years.