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Delay is danger - Government could face multimillion-dollar lawsuits over snail's pace justice system

Published:Thursday | October 4, 2018 | 12:00 AMBarbara Gayle

The slow pace of Jamaica's justice system could cause the Government to pay out millions of dollars in compensation to persons who have had their cases take years in the courts.

Already one person has indicated that he will be seeking $30 million in compensation after the court ruled that the delay in completing his matter was a breach of his constitutional rights, and noted local attorneys have warned that other lawsuits could follow.

"The delays can be grounds of appeal for acquittals and grounds for constitutional damages for compensation from the State, and taxpayers will have to pay," warned attorney-at-law Bert Samuels.

He pointed to the case of Mervin Cameron, who had been in custody for four years without a preliminary enquiry being held into the murder case against him.

Samuels noted that there are many pending cases which are older than four years in the system, and Cameron's case is now a precedent.

Cameron, through his lawyer Hugh Wildman, challenged the delay in the Constitutional Court and got a ruling this year that the State must pay damages because his constitutional rights were breached.

Minister of Justice Delroy Chuck has repeatedly declared his commitment to reduce the backlog of cases before the courts, and last week indicated that he wants cases disposed of within three years.

"Otherwise, the constitutional right of the accused [to a fair trial within a reasonable time] has been breached," Chuck admitted during the justice ministry's quarterly press briefing last Wednesday.

Chuck had previously noted that for the first six months of 2018, an average of 90 of every 100 cases that were taken to court were completed. This was an improvement over the past two years when 50 out of every 100 cases were completed.




He further noted that the justice sector is far advanced in its projection to clear up more than 30,000 backlogged cases by 2020, having disposed of one-third of that number since 2016.

Attorney-at-law Peter Champagnie agreed that in recent times there have been a number of initiatives taken towards having criminal cases disposed of.

He said the concept of a matter being tried on a given trial date as opposed to being adjourned was now beginning to take root.

"However, in the transition process towards this, the biggest problem is the extended trial dates that are assigned to matters that are already very old on the list. As a result accused persons, especially those in custody, are now seeing trial dates assigned to them not within months from their last appearance in court but in some instances a year," said Champagnie.

He noted that Canadian case law has suggested that cases should be disposed of within a reasonable time, and indeed this was endorsed by the Cameron case.

"Realistically, however, like any new process being introduced into a system which requires a transition period towards reformation, there are going to be real concerns in this regard.

"So as not to exaggerate the problem, defence counsel with this new dispensation must now treat the management of their cases in a realistic way. This requires of us to be fully au fait with our cases and readily identify issues to be determined," added Champagnie.