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Status quo must be challenged to fix management of judicial system

Stephen
Edwards

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

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On November 21, 2017 I made an enquiry of the Court Management Services (CMS) using the Access to Information Act (ATI), which was addressed to the listed ATI officer of the agency. At the time Zaila McCalla still held the office of chief justice of Jamaica, as this is long before there was any controversy surrounding the appointment of Acting Chief Justice Bryan Sykes.

The ATI request simply enquired about the number of cases that each judge presided over during the years 2013-2017, which were statistics simply related to the administration of the courts and had nothing to do with the identity of the judges, the content of the cases, nor the outcomes. The intent of the request was simply to identify the weaknesses in the existing system so that I could make proper and constructive recommendations that were based on facts and not anecdotes.

Unfortunately, on January 11, 2018 I received a very evasive response from the Court Management Services which stated:

“As I understand the request being made, the applicant seeks to obtain information relative to and disaggregated to every judge (Court of Appeal, Supreme Court or Parish Court). Section 5, subsections (1) through (5) of the Access to Information Act set out entities which are subject to requests made under the Act and any requests thereunder does not apply to the judicial functions of neither a court nor the holder of a judicial office or other office connected with a court.

“It is an undisputed fact that each judge is the holder of a judicial office. It follows therefore that court cases that judges 'preside over' would be so done in exercise of their judicial functions. Indeed, this is the position whether the term 'presided over' is given a restricted interpretation or even if it is given its widest interpretation. Any request seeking to obtain documents or information on the number of cases 'presided over' by individual judicial officers would therefore fall within the ambit of section 5 subsection (6) b (ii) of the Act.”

Although the ATI Act affords every citizen of Jamaica the right to view or receive copies of official information, and despite the fact that the CMS has a member of staff who is assigned the task of providing such information to the public, I was essentially being told that I have no right to any information that is related to the court system.

There can be no doubt that with the enormous backlog of cases, the judges, all of whom I have the greatest respect for, surely must feel overworked and overwhelmed. Also, ordinary Jamaicans like myself are crying for justice to be served, having grown frustrated with the system in its current state. I wouldn't be surprised if the staff of the CMS themselves are frustrated with things as they are. It is glaringly obvious that the system is broken,and placing unnecessary stress on us all. If we endeavour to fix the system without casting blame on any person or party we must first be prepared to disclose the data surrounding the administration and management of the courts. This is the only way to empower each and every Jamaican to participate in the search for creative solutions.

The response from the CMS to my ATI request goes on to contradict itself by pointing out that the courts were provided resources to recruit a statistician, who joined their staff in 2016, and that the Court of Appeal has produced (public) reports over the past two years. If the Court of Appeal, which is the highest court of the land, can make such information public, why can't the lower courts do so as well? It is therefore evident that the leadership of the Court of Appeal recognises the duality of their roles in (1) their administrative functions and (2) their judicial functions. The judges at the Court of Appeal must be commended for their foresight in seeing the utility of making their administrative data accessible and transparent, like all other government bodies.

Much of the despair and heartache that we experience as Jamaicans are rooted in the old ways of doing things. If we want to achieve something that we have never achieved before we must be prepared to do something that we have never done before. Prime Minister Andrew Holness, in his wisdom, has also recognised the duality of the roles of the chief justice as the head administrator and judicial officer of the justice system, and challenged the status quo by using his constitutional authority to appoint an acting chief justice. This is the type of unconventional approach that fosters the results that ordinary Jamaicans like myself have long awaited.

By all accounts, the acting chief justice is not only one of Jamaica's most experienced legal luminaries, but is also a man of unquestionable integrity. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that he would have accepted an appointment that he felt would compromise his judicial independence. Given that the respect for Justice Sykes seems to transcend all divides, including that of politics, it is probably best that we all take this opportunity to trust his own judgement on the matter having accepted the appointment of acting chief justice. Let us give him the support he needs to fix an ailing justice system by further challenging the existing status quo.

Stephen R P Edwards is president of Generation 2000 (G2K), the young professional affiliate of the Jamaica Labour Party. He is a civil engineer and former university lecturer. Send comments to the Observer or g2kpresident@gmail.com.

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