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DPP slaps successive gov'ts for justice system neglect

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Paula Llewellyn yesterday chastised successive governments for not paying enough attention to the justice system over several decades, resulting in broken down infrastructure and a crippling backlog of cases.

In a report to the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) of Parliament on its backlog reduction strategy, the Ministry of Justice reports that there are over 2,000 cases in circuit courts across the island, with 861 serious offences in the home circuit alone. Additionally there are over 35,000 cases in parish courts awaiting trial, some of them partially heard.

“It is just unfortunate that over the last 30 years there was not a unified, holistic vision by both political dispensations in respect of the justice system… at least 40 years ago, there should have been a 20-year plan (or) a 30-year plan to take account of the increase in the population in the town centres… looking at our statistics you will see the doubling (and) tripling in crime in many of the parishes,” Llewellyn stated during a sitting of the PAAC where officials of the Ministry of Justice answered questions about the state of the justice system.

The DPP argued that case backlog is not unique to Jamaica, but that there must be a method of minimising the excess. “Part of Jamaica's problem is the fact that the justice system has never been as sexy for you legislators as building a highway, therefore the resources have not been put in place to enhance the capacity of the courts,” she stated.

Llewellyn said her office is doing what it can to reduce the backlog, pointing to a pilot which is to be launched in the St Catherine circuit court which now has over 400 cases. “In conjunction with the Chief Justice we have decided to find the resources to have two different circuit courts sitting at the same time from the beginning of November through to December,” she explained. “In order for us to mount those two sittings at the same time we have had to collapse the continuing sitting of the Clarendon circuit court, so it means that matters that would have been ready for November and December, we have had to adjourn those until next year so that we can have a judge and a prosecutor available to try to break the back of that over-400 case load.”

Further emphasising the challenge of inappropriate facilities and shortage of courtrooms, Senior Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions Jeremy Taylor painted a startling picture of daily occurrences in the circuit court. “In St Elizabeth the custody persons and the jurors share the same room, because there is no holding area,” he said. “When the jurors need to retire to consider a verdict you have to empty the room of the custody persons and put them to sit in the court while the jurors go in to deliberate. In St Ann, when the circuit sits, again a parish court has been displaced and you have not lived until you enter the St Ann court to see police fingerprinting persons right in front of a courtroom door, and a holding area which is under the staircase and where I share a bathroom with the custody persons,” he said.

Llewellyn said part of the problem is that legislatures have been “in a bubble” where the administration of justice is concerned. “We are in the trenches… part of the problem is a lot of you really don't understand what it takes to run the justice system, so a lot has been taken for granted,” she stated.

Permanent Secretary Carol Palmer, while outlining some of the steps being taken to improve infrastructure, expressed her own frustration. “The Chief Justice will tell you she would love to have the circuits sitting all year round so that we can put a dent in the number of cases, but it's not practical because 99 per cent of the cases that are at the parish courts will therefore not happen,” she told the committee.

Palmer pointed out that the majority of out-stations are “as derelict as they come”, and despite repairs, are just too old to manage what is expected, noting too that there is also an issue of resistance to using some of them.

According to a September 2017 report submitted to the committee, the ministry expects to double the number of courts in the Supreme Court for criminal cases from six to 12, but unless there is personnel to manage and staff these courts, they cannot operate.

It was also noted that Cabinet signed off on an additional 17 posts, including 10 Crown counsel, for the Office of the DPP. Approval has also been granted for 19 administrative positions to be upgraded, the DPP informed the committee.

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