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Office of Public Defender not protected in the Constitution – Harrison Henry

Published:Thursday | July 7, 2022 | 12:07 AMBarbara Gayle/Contributor
Harrison Henry
Harrison Henry

The Office of the Public Defender, which was established 22 years ago, is still not protected in the Constitution of Jamaica despite promises from successive governments to do so.

Yesterday, Acting Public Defender Herbert McKenzie said such a move would give it more power in terms of getting responses from several agencies, including government departments, and put the office on a more solid legal footing.

McKenzie said that large numbers of persons visit the office daily with myriad complaints, including requests for financial and economic assistance. Some, he said, even visit seeking help with legal representation.

Retired Public Defender Arlene Harrison Henry, who demitted office on April 6, also expressed her disappointment that the office was not protected by the Constitution of Jamaica.

She said she left the office with mixed feelings as she was very disappointed that certain goals were not fulfilled during her seven-year tenure, which began in January 2015. One of her regrets, she said, was that the office was established as a Commission of Parliament 22 years ago, but successive governments have not taken steps to have it recognised and protected in the Constitution. Harrison Henry said the Office of the Public Defender existed and operated under an interim legislation, which is the Public Defender (Interim) Act, and this had been from April 16, 2000. She explained that Section 3 of the legislation states that “ this act shall continue in force until provision is made in the Constitution of Jamaica for the establishment of a Public Defender in terms which preclude the alteration of that provision otherwise than in accordance with the procedures prescribed by or in relation to Section 49 (2) of that Constitution and shall then expire”.

“So what we have here,” Harrison Henry explained, “is a parliamentary promise going back 22 years which neither side has fulfilled. Indeed, both sides have failed to make this commission take its rightful place in the Constitution, thus further protecting the constitutional rights of all Jamaicans within our democracy. And as we face our 60th anniversary of our independence, the need for the protection of constitutional rights is enlarged as matters of education, public health, and fighting criminality ought to adopt a human- and equitable-rights approach to address, in a meaningful manner, our multiplicity of social problems which impeded the vast majority of Jamaicans from satisfying their life ambitions.”

She says that both administrations were remiss in their duty to Jamaica in keeping with their parliamentary promise to establish the Commission of Parliament in the Constitution as several other Caribbean countries have done. This parliamentary promise appears to have been forgotten, she emphasised.

“Once the office is protected in the Constitution,” Harrison Henry said, “the office would have security of place, protection of constitutional rights in our democratic system of government, and complete non-interference. As an example, she says, once it is in the Constitution, the office could not be merged with or into a ministry with accountability to a minister who is a member of a political party.

The second regret, she said, was that both sides did not look seriously at the establishment of a National Commission on Human Rights for the office to grow into. She said some people called it an ‘institute’, but the Office of the Public Defender preferred the expression ‘commission’.

“We have made our submissions to both sides, and that is to Minister of Justice Delroy Chuck in the current administration, and to the minister in the former administration, that is, Minister Mark Golding, now leader of the Opposition, that this office can grow into a commission and expand our operations,” Harrison Henry disclosed. “Under my tenure, we established an office in Montego Bay and one in Mandeville to provide greater service to those communities because Kingston and St Andrew is not Jamaica.”

She pointed out that many of the ministries, departments, and agencies of government did not respond to “our letters and correspondence, enquiries, and requests for information in a sufficiently timely fashion, a fact which ultimately affects the rights of citizens because our investigation is impacted by the non-response, delayed response, so much so that in some cases, we are forced to use a summons to get the information the office requires”.

This, she says, is why it was of the utmost importance that the Office of the Public Defender be protected in the Constitution.