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Judicial fire! Supreme Court judge admits system in crisis

Published:Sunday | April 11, 2010 | 12:00 AM
Mrs Justice Marva McDonald-Bishop (in black) examines the guard of honour at the opening of the St James Circuit Court, 2008. - File

Barbara Gayle, Senior Staff Reporter

THE JUSTICE system came under judicial fire last week when Supreme Court Judge Marva McDonald-Bishop opened the Easter session of the Home Circuit Court and announced that the system was in crisis.

She said judges are hampered in performing their functions due to inadequate resources and support facilities in other areas. One of the solutions to this problem, she said, was for the Government to move quickly to set up an independent court-services agency so that the court could have its own budget and judicial independence from the executive. This was one of the recommendations of the Justice Reform Task Force back in 2007.

The judge said a headline caught her eyes in The Sunday Gleaner some weeks ago about the crippled justice system. She confesssed that when she read the article she said to herself: "All my work-filled days and sleepless nights were in vain."

After Senior Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions Diahann Gordon-Harrison gave the statistics of the cases before the court, the judge remarked: "The statistics are enough to evoke a feeling of bewilderment and perhaps frustration."

Commenting further, the judge said: "It is indeed enough to evoke a belief in the casual onlooker that the justice system is a failure. These statistics are such that they could lead people to lose faith and confidence in the administration of justice."

The Hilary term, which ended on March 26, had 457 cases for trial. Sixty-one were disposed of and 396 were traversed to the Easter term, which commenced on April 8 and ends on July 30. This term, has 478 cases listed for trial, as 32 new cases were added to the list.

All is not well

"I would be unfair if I were to say steps have not been taken or are not being taken to deal with the problems confronting us. But the statistical data staring us in the face is a signpost that all is not well in paradise. It shows us a nation in trouble. It also tells us of the work that awaits us," the judge said.

She added that judges did not sit in lofty heights, detached from the society of which they were a part, but were hampered due to inadequate resources and support facilities. These include insufficient typists and no research assistants, proofreaders or editors for their written judgments.

Judges have to be sharing chambers, which McDonald-Bishop said was hampering them in making decisions and performing their functions.

Last July, Government announ-ced that it had purchased the National Commercial Bank building on King Street, downtown Kingston, for the expansion of the Supreme Court. McDonald-Bishop is calling on the Government to act swiftly to refurbish the building so that judges could have their own chambers.

She was extremely passionate when she said that the judiciary should have its independence, and stressed that the task force had recommended that a modernised Jamaican justice system required the establishment of an independent court management services agency (CMSA).

Strengthening autonomy

"This recommendation was born out of the finding that there is a real danger that the independence of the judiciary is being eroded, and so there is a need for steps to be taken to strengthen greater autonomy of the judiciary," she said.

"It is a common feature of commonwealth constitutional democracies that while the judiciary is to be separate from the other arms of Government, nevertheless responsibility for the management and administration of the courts is vested in the executive, acting through a ministry of justice," the judge said.

McDonald-Bishop is urging the government to give the recommendations serious consideration with a view to expediting the establishment of the CMSA, because that would help to preserve judicial independence.

"Until we are able to deal with our own budget so we can have our own resources, justice will always be put on the back burner," the judge warned.

She assured the nation that judges would always ensure that the stream of justice remained pure and unobstructed and that "the justice system even if crippled, will not die".