Judges send a message - Emergency marathon meeting grinds justice system to a halt
Parish Court judges, fearing that their wage impasse with the Government will drag on for another Budget year, used a marathon meeting with their seniors yesterday to air their grouse over salaries and conditions of service, as well as discuss their concerns on separation of powers, judicial independence and judicial accountability.
The nearly five-hour meeting, which caused significant disruptions at the Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court and Parish Courts across the island, was called mainly to discuss the continued refusal by Prime Minister Andrew Holness to permanently appoint Bryan Sykes to the post of chief justice.
But according to sources, Parish Court judges, who have been waiting for a wage increase since October 2015, seized the opportunity to question the commitment of the Government to resolve the issue.
An independent commission established by the Government conducted a review of the salaries of Parish Court judges and other members of the judiciary and submitted its report, but the restive jurists complained yesterday that there has been no solid commitment to implement the recommendations.
"The fear is that if it is not in this coming Budget, then their wait will go into year three, possibly four," the source told The Gleaner.
The source revealed, too, that there are a number of parish judges who reside in the Corporate Area, but preside in rural parishes.
SENT TO FINANCE MINISTRY
"Two years ago, their gas bill alone was $50,000 per month. Can you imagine what it is now and they can't claim for expense to travel to work?" the source added.
Justice Minister Delroy Chuck revealed yesterday that the submission of the independent commission has been sent to the Ministry of Finance.
"The Ministry of Finance will then do their assessment and make their recommendation to Cabinet in short order," Chuck shared.
He revealed, too, that judges are paid from the budget of the Court Management Service (CMS) "and, to the best of my knowledge, there has been an increase in their budget.
"I can't tell you that was factored in, but in any event, if Cabinet approves the increase to them, it will be paid," the minister said, dismissing fears that Parish Court judges would have to wait another year to get a wage increase.
According to CMS, nearly 100 judges attended yesterday's meeting, which is described as a "historical summit of the judicial arm of Government".
However, Chuck described the meeting as inappropriate and indicated, up to midday, that he has received reports that a number of courts were impacted.
"It is inappropriate for the judges to have a meeting on a Monday morning. It has caused grave inconvenience to attorneys, witnesses and accused persons," the minister fumed.
THRUST OF THE MEETING
However, CMS noted that recent statements made by Holness regarding the appointment of Sykes to act as chief justice were among a range of issues that were discussed.
Holness, in defending his decision to appoint Sykes to act as chief justice, saying he was from a different age with a different way of thinking, indicated that the permanent appointment of the respected jurist would be based on performance and results.
But in a statement following the meeting, CMS said the judges had concerns about "what appears to be another instance of interference by the legislative and executive branches of government in the area of the independence of the judiciary."
"The thrust of the meeting was to reaffirm the hallowed principles of the separation of powers doctrine and the independence of the judiciary," the statement from CMS said.
"The nation's judges recognise and deeply regret the inconvenience to litigants, attorneys and members of the public across the island caused by Monday's meeting in Kingston. However, in light of the gravity of the concerns and in the interest of the country's democracy and justice system, it was considered an absolute necessity.
"For those persons inconvenienced, we will endeavour to ensure their matters are rescheduled for the earliest possible time. Where necessary, we will be sitting for extended periods to achieve this," read a section of a declaration from the judges on separation of powers, judicial independence and judicial accountability, sent to the media yesterday evening.