Towards equal rights and justice

BY STEPHEN VASCIANIE

Sunday, November 19, 2017

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The following is the edited version of a speech given by Professor Stephen Vasciannie, at the Annual Awards function of the St Ann Justices of the Peace Association at the Cardiff Hotel and Spa, Runaway Bay, recently.

Allow me at the outset to offer special greetings to the distinguished custos of the parish of St Ann, Norma L Walters, and to the custos emeritus, Radcliffe Walters. Your presence here today reminds us of the special role custodes play in the leadership of justices of the peace, and in the leadership of the country, more generally. Custos Walters, I salute you as the chief justice of the peace and the keeper of the rolls for St Ann.

I congratulate you and the members of the St Ann Justices of the Peace Association on your work in the association. Your objectives — “to promote civic responsibility and to bring together justices of the peace in a businesslike and cohesive group to discharge your duties” — are indeed commendable.

I commend you, too, on your outreach programmes, including the presentation of scholarships at the tertiary level to students, your Youth Mentorship Project, your seminars, and other activities.

Honorees

Our special tribute today is to justices of the Peace who have offered over 30 years of dedicated service to the beautiful garden parish. I lift my proverbial hat to you all, and I acknowledge that the country cannot begin to pay you for helping Jamaica through our years of struggle towards development.

In the case of Mr Karl Fuller and Mrs Winnifred Young Shue, I note that the years of service have extended for some 43 years; by my calculation, Mr Fuller and Mrs Young Shue began offering their services and guidance as justices of the peace in about 1975 — at a time when they must have been teenagers — and when the price of a patty in Cardiff Hall and Tanglewood was 10 cents.

Others are not far behind, for the work of some of today's honorees, including Ilene Manning, Beryl Spence, and Onesta Maffessanti, go back to the 1970s.

Others again, go back to the 1980s, including Helen Clarke, Gobind Chatani, Mr Adolph Clarke, Norman Johnson, Kuma Sujanani, Windell Clarke, Leon Gordon OD, Michael Bachstetz, Anthony Charley, Cecil Simmonds, Jeanne Dixon and Marjorie Taylor.

I pay tribute to you all. Justices of the peace are, in many respects, the unsung heroes and heroines of Jamaica. At the time of your appointment you must already have been recognised as pillars of your community. You were recognised from over 30 years ago as persons of unquestionable integrity; responsible, trustworthy and honourable members of society. You must have led, and continue to lead, exemplary lives. And always you must be willing to be an important link between the individual and the State in a wide variety of matters.

But these qualities — all very important — constitute the starting point for your positions. For, as you will have known from your 30 or more years of dedicated experience, the justice of the peace is called upon to perform specific functions, pursuant to the Justices of the Peace Jurisdiction Act and other laws.

Functions

You are required to play key roles in the Petty Sessions jurisdiction, in some instances, in the Children's Court and the Drug Court; you hear bail applications; are required to attend at police stations for various matters; you sit on licensing panel. And then there are matters with which you are most associated in the public mind: you give advice and counsel, and you explain and sign documents.

I pay tribute to you for all your service. The website of the Ministry of Justice — which is the source for much of my information about your functions — indicates that there are more than 400 justices of the peace for St Ann. This is voluntary work and it represents Jamaican humanity at its best.

But, I do not believe your services would be any less valuable to society if justices of the peace were to be paid for some of their services. In many instances, the demands on your time and effort are significant. The State should acknowledge this, and provide appropriate compensation in my view.

Justice and Peace

The title “Justice of the Peace” is interesting. It signals two important functions of the office holder — namely, the provision of justice and the preservation of peace. Back in 1361, when the office was first conceptualised in England, the peace was presumably the “King's Peace”, but today we may quite freely accept that the peace is peace throughout the society. And, similarly, the “justice” is justice in society.

So, justice and peace are taken together in the title. At about the time when Fuller and Young Shue became JPs in the 1970s, Peter Tosh had a popular song with the line: “I don't want no peace, I want equal rights and justice.” And, in more recent times, we would have heard crowds shouting, “No justice, no peace.”

The suggestion here is that some members of the society take the view that peace cannot be built on unsafe foundations. If there is limited justice in society, we should also expect limited peace.

Now, in Jamaican society, with a relatively small population, we need peace to break out. We are now averaging more than 1,300 murders per year and, if the public media provides guidance, it is fair to say that serious criminality, once associated with identifiable pockets in different parts of the country, is now spreading even to areas that were hitherto quite peaceful.

To some extent, this is a sign that the society needs more justice. The foundation is unsure, and so, the superstructure of peace is very shaky. But what is to be done?

Broadening justice

To begin with, we should acknowledge the need for more justice in society. But, I would quickly add, the way we use the term justice here may need to be broadened. If we take justice to mean fairness in the way the courts treat citizens, Jamaican society may be perceived as reasonably just, at least in comparison to some societies with lower levels of crime and violence.

But, if we take a broader view of justice — to include the provision of services and opportunities in life — some Jamaicans are surely correct when they maintain that “we want justice”. It was recently noted by a senior police officer that a significant portion of persons convicted of serious crimes are persons who dropped out of school. And, one has the distinct impression that many young Jamaicans now wonder whether they can make progress in life, in the face of economic challenges.

The main task we have as a society, therefore, is to ensure that we continue to promote justice in the narrow sense of treatment in the courts, while simultaneously promoting the wider case for social justice (opportunities for all).

For justice, in the narrow court sense, I would be preaching to the choir if I embarked on a statement about the need to promote and protect basic human rights. But I should make a few brief observations.

Human rights

Jamaica has had, over the years, a comparatively positive human rights record at the level of legislation. Thus, the Charter of Fundamental Rights provides a reasonably comprehensive listing of human rights, including the right to life, freedom from inhuman punishment or treatment, freedom of expression, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of association, and so on.

Admittedly, however, there are challenges when the rubber of legislation hits the hard road of practice. For example, we have often heard complaints about unlawful killings by the police, and we are not always sure that justice is achieved in these instances. INDECOM has been in place with an active and effective team, led by the extraordinarily competent Commissioner Terrence Williams, but the Jamaican State still remains subject to international criticism concerning citizens killed while in the custody of the State.

Education

For justice, in the wider sense, including the provision of greater opportunities for people, I suggest that we need to concentrate on the educational sector in the country. I do not mean to imply that the situation here is entirely bleak.

The Jamaican Government — and successive Jamaican Governments — have been committed to increased access to primary and secondary school education. There has also been an increase in enrolment at the tertiary level — so we may conclude that there has been a significant opening up of opportunities since the 1970s. We are grateful for that.

But issues remain. For example, in the provision of increased access, we have to continuously provide appropriate funding for tertiary level students. Again, the Ministry of Education and the Students' Loan Bureau are alive to the funding challenges, but it is yet uncertain that this problem has been fully overcome. At the tertiary level, it is painful to see talented, bright Jamaicans having to withdraw from studies because they cannot afford to cover their fees and living expenses.

Funding and access

Secondly, we need to ensure that our funding system supports the right people — namely, those who truly need financial assistance. A study by CaPRI, the Caribbean Policy Research Institute, done about a decade ago, indicated that, in some cases, the Government was funding persons who could afford to pay for tertiary education, while it was not paying sufficient funds to support those who are truly in need.

Thirdly, although there has been increased access, we should not assume that the battle is won. In about the year 2000, approximately 16 per cent of the university age cohort in Jamaica had access to tertiary education. This was in comparison to Barbados at about 38 per cent and Cuba at about 24 per cent. There have been improvements since then, but these improvements need reinforcement because we are moving from a narrow base.

Not by STEM alone

Fourthly, even with increased access at the tertiary level, the question arises whether persons will gain suitable employment upon graduation. In response to this question, the Jamaican Government has strongly suggested that we should promote increased studies in the area of technology. This, it is suggested with cogency, is the way of the future. Accordingly, I am happy to note that 75 per cent of the programmes of study at the University of Technology, Jamaica, are dedicated to technology and science. We encourage persons in this direction.

But, in the course of promoting STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics — we must be mindful not to dismiss other areas of intellectual pursuits as irrelevant or useless. Jamaican society needs businessmen and women, teachers, poets and playwrights, historians, social scientists, artists and musicians, lawyers, hospitality management, and persons ready to serve in areas other than science and technology, important as this is.

Universities must strive to provide opportunities for students of all intellectual inclinations, even as they identify priority areas for emphasis in keeping with government policy. Sometimes I think this point is not made loudly enough by the guardians of our education system.

Brain drain

As a fifth point on the provision of opportunities through education, I note the well-known problem of the brain drain. In brief, the Government of Jamaica funds tertiary education, persons become highly trained, and then they migrate. On one view, Jamaica has therefore lost out on its investment in the individual. If we assume that this is a major problem — and it is for some commentators — the question is whether we should do anything about it, and what can we do?

My perspective is that many Jamaicans with tertiary education will wish to stay here if they can be assured of employment opportunities which match their levels of skill and expertise. For all its problems, we love this rock. Thus, we tend to leave when we feel there is no realistic alternative. If we force people to stay in Jamaica to work in unsuitable jobs, this will simply lead to resentment and disaffection among university graduates.

This is not to say that we cannot put in place incentives for our graduates to remain. There could be loan repayment schemes that encourage persons to remain in Jamaica, and even encourage persons to take up jobs in areas of national development not currently perceived as popular.

Good must suffer?

I have concentrated on the tertiary level, but I should make a comment quickly on a presumption that is sometimes invoked at the primary and secondary levels. Teachers, in applying discipline across the board, will sometimes say “the good must suffer for the bad”. And, in the past, this meant, for instance, that everyone in a class would be punished because the wrongdoer could not properly be identified. This, as justices of the peace will know, goes against the presumption of innocence which is a core tenet of the Jamaican justice system.

Law problem

Finally, I return to the theme of justice in the form of opportunity creation, to make a specific comment on equity in education. Many Jamaicans would like to become lawyers, or would like their children to become lawyers, but the system in place at the moment restricts access to the profession, and it grants the power of admission to the Council of Legal Education.

The council is required to accept all law graduates of The University of the West Indies to study law, and to make arrangements concerning other graduates, such as from the University of Technology, the Northern Caribbean University; the University of London, and so on.

Equity coming

The question of equity is why UWI graduates have a privilege that is withheld from all other universities. It may be that in 1971, when the system was in place, this was fair — I do not think it would have been — but, it is beyond question that the current system is discriminatory.

We, therefore, have in place a system which says to graduates of the University of Technology, Jamaica, the national university, that their law graduates have to take an examination to enter the Norman Manley Law School. The UWI graduates, in contrast, do not have to take that examination, for they have automatic entry.

The Minister of Education, Senator Ruel Reid, has publicly promised that this will change — so we wait, optimistically, but impatiently, for this injustice to be rectified.

Impatience

This takes me to my final general point. As justices of the peace, you have very special role in society because when there is no justice — in the narrow or wide sense — people become impatient. They will feel that the system is stacked against them, they will grow alienated, they will hunger for change. They will say this situation is not righteous.

In this context, justices of the peace become social safety valves. You provide the means by which persons accept that their society is fair and just. I encourage you to continue in this magnificent role, and to be agents of improvement and change where you can be.

To the honorees: Please accept my heartiest congratulations for more than 30 years dedicated, committed service to the people of St Ann. You have helped to establish both justice and peace to your parish. Long may you continue to serve!

Stephen Vasciannie is the president of the University of Technology, Jamaica. He has served as Jamaica's ambassador to the United States of America and as permanent representative to the Organization of American States.

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