What does it mean to be a justice of the peace?
According to the Ministry of Justice, a justice of the peace (JP) is a person of unquestionable integrity who seeks to promote and protect the rights of the individual and helps to provide justice to persons in a particular community. Additionally, the JP serves as a justice in petty court sessions, attends juvenile court sessions, issues summonses, considers applications for bail, explains and signs legal documents, sits on licensing panels, and gives counsel/advice. Any Jamaican citizen that can write and speak English is eligible to become a JP. Any club/organisation/citizen can recommend someone to become JP for a community. JPs are chosen under the Governor General's discretion. Yeah, and pigs can fly!
Why am I so cynical you may well ask? Fact is, there are far too many JPs in Jamaica who see their position only as a mere status symbol, an abbreviation after one's name that can provide social mobility, garner respect, and looks good in a resume. Indeed, I am tempted to ask to what extent the Justice Ministry believes that justices of the peace carry out all of the abovementioned duties diligently and with a sense of purpose.
In 1983 I was appointed a justice of the peace and can recall that it was the then Custos of St James William "Billy" Craig who insisted that I be commissioned after the Member of Parliament representing my community refused to validate my selection claiming that I was too critical of him and the party (government) of which he was a part. During my youthful years, a JP — teasingly referred to as Jackass Parson by country folk — was a highly respected individual who willingly and unhesitatingly gave free, voluntary service to his/her respective community. Many were known as village lawyers. Nowadays, one hears too frequently that some JPs are charging for their services.
The sad truth is that many JPs are selected on the basis of cronyism, political affiliation and social connections. Many JPs are not known by most of the persons in their communities. Too often I have had persons coming to me asking for my assistance as a JP, and when I ask them why don't they check such a person in their area the stock answer is, "Me no know none a dem, sar". And even if they do, in most instances they will declare that they are not available to sign documents or photographs. What is even worse is that there are cases where persons seeking help have been chased away, insulted or ignored.
In this vein, it ought to be the policy of the Ministry of Justice that JPs be selected on the basis of demography and community needs. There is one relatively small community in St James that has some 52 JPs, while other areas have none or too few. And why is it that JPs' names and the community to which they are attached cannot be published in the newspapers and on noticeboards at post offices so that the general public can be more informed and have better access to these hallowed persons?
In Montego Bay, there was a recent situation in which large groups of persons could be seen lining up to get stamped recommendations from two JPs. It is understood that these persons had to pay between $200 and $300 for the service. The authorities got wind of the illegal practice and it has since been reportedly discontinued. Sad truth is that many of these persons had no choice but to utilise the services of those JPs at a price because of the unavailability of sufficient JPs to carry out this work. A classic case of supply versus demand?
Another worrying trend is that many JPs do not want to do petty sessions. I have even heard of some individuals who are approached to be JPs insisting that they must be assured by the Custos that they will not be called upon to act as a lay magistrate. Against this background, it is no secret that, in several parishes, it is a dedicated few — usually retired civil servants — who carry out most of the duties assigned to JPs. What is disturbing is that, in a society that is prone to much crime and violence, JPs would seek to take on a more meaningful and constructive role of being peace officers. It is my view that JPs should be mentors, advisers, counsellors, role models, and symbols of respectability in their respective communities.
The question, too, may well be asked if too many JPs are being appointed. I recently overheard a sceptical citizen opining that nowadays "every puss, dog and rat a tun Jackass Parson". Not a very complimentary observation. But as crude and rude as this may sound it does reflect a great deal of the negative sentiments out there with respect to the appointment of JPs. I do believe the time has come for a greater level of scrutiny to be employed in the selection of individuals to become JPs. And, while it can be useful for elected representatives to make recommendations, there should be a greater level of community consultation so as to ensure that persons so chosen truly reflect the hopes and aspirations of the people they are deemed to serve.
I know that some JPs will be upset based on my ruminations, but the time has come to call a spade a spade and let the chips fall where they may. A JP should not be seen as a JLP JP or a PNP JP; it should not be the sole prerogative of the custodes — not "custoses" as many are wont to say — to select whom they want without carrying out extensive and strategic consultations. There is one businessman in downtown Montego Bay who, because of his accessibility, is oftentimes plagued with long lines of anxious citizens seeking to avail themselves of his services. This is not fair to him when, in close proximity, there are a number of JPs who stay clear from offering the services for which they were designated.
In this context, it may well be argued that JPs should be given the discretion to sign documents or photographs of persons they do not know if they are provided with enough legitimate evidence to verify who they are. This hard and fast rule that a JP should not sign anything for a person he or she does not know has caused many desperate citizens to wallow in despair as they cannot find any appropriate JP. Then again, many of these JPs are not that well known because they are not in the thick of things. After all, when all is said and done, JPs should be people persons, not stuck up, aloof individuals who are easily satiated by being the beneficiaries of the spoils of office. And it can be said that, in some cases, JP appointments, very much like appointments to school boards and the conferring of national honours, are a part of the "scarce benefits" scenario that for too long has been part and parcel of national and community life.
Lloyd B Smith is a member of Parliament and deputy speaker of the House of Representatives. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the People's National Party or the Government of Jamaica. Comments: email@example.com