Tue | Mar 26, 2019

Editiorial | Next steps for Justice Sykes

Published:Wednesday | March 13, 2019 | 12:15 AM

Bryan Sykes, the chief justice, has laid out a set of clear and, given the history of the Jamaican courts, clearly ambitious targets by which he intends to transform the island’s judicial system into being “the best in the Caribbean” within three years and among the world’s finest within six.

Among the benchmarks he established are:

- The disposal of cases within two years;

- The clearing of the backlog of cases by year end;

- The delivery of all judgments – from 2020 – within three months of the completion of cases and within six months for the most complex matters;

- The completion of probate-related matters in 12 weeks; and

- The finalisation of divorces within three months.

Justice Sykes didn’t define his “Caribbean”, but we assume he limited it to the English-speaking portion of the region, inclusive of Guyana and Belize, with its jurisprudential tradition of the English common law. Whatever definitions the chief justice assigned to his ambitions, he made it clear that the clock started ticking 13 days ago, on March 1.

This transformation, whether of the perception or reality, won’t be easy.

Indeed, as Vanderbilt University’s latest (2016-17) survey of attitudes towards democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean revealed, when Jamaicans were asked to rate, on a scale of zero to 100, their ­likelihood of getting a fair trial, positive attitudes couldn’t get halfway up the dial. And that was an improvement on the previous survey, two years earlier. Wide swathes of Jamaicans believe the courts, like most of the island’s institutions of democracy, are corrupt.

Moreover, the system is slow and inefficient. Hundreds and thousands of cases are backlogged that the courts, and it is not unusual for cases to take a decade, or more, to be determined. Such delays not only undermine confidence in the organised processes of justice, but contribute to the breakdown of law and order and the rise, if not legitimisation, of extrajudicial processes. They also represent a drag on economic activity when commercial, and related, disputes can’t be expeditiously executed.

TWO SIGNIFICANT SHORTCOMINGS

In his transformation project, Justice Sykes has a significant asset. Few people seriously question the jurisprudential quality of Jamaican judges. And whatever may be the public’s perception, there is little evidence of corruption in the judiciary.

We, however, perceive two significant ­shortcomings in the chief justice’s plan. One is the absence of ­security over the financial resources to support the scheme and, second, while he announced a ­destination, Justice Sykes didn’t delineate a route for getting there.

On the latter point, we previously suggested that he make the benchmarks a judge’s charter with the citizenry, and that Parliament might go further by locking them in as legally binding performance criteria for judges. However, any such move doesn’t obviate the need for a transparent strategic plan for the courts, which identifies goals, how they are to be achieved, and timelines for their accomplishment.

With regard to financing, the judicial system, like all other components of government, is subject to the vagaries and the competing demands on national resources. Indeed, while we do not expect this to ever be the case, control of the purse strings is one way that the executive and legislative arms of Government can constrain the independence of the judiciary – not by dictating to it, but by impeding its ability to perform to its optimum.

Our suggestion, therefore, is that Justice Sykes advocate that we borrow the model of the Caribbean Court of Justice, whose sponsors established an ­independent trust fund, the proceeds from which finance the operations of the court.

In Jamaica’s case, it might require the Government seeding the fund over a defined number of years, allowing a build-up of resources, before the ­judiciary is weaned from the Consolidated Fund and the whims of finance ministers.