Editorial | Follow the courts
Chief Justice Bryan Sykes’ declaration that Jamaica’s parish courts, where citizens are more likely to interact with the justice system, are now backlog-free is a development to be celebrated. But this newspaper won’t be overly wild about it just yet.
We will await information on the corresponding achievements at higher levels of the judiciary, and, importantly, how the improved judicial efficiency translates to a deterrent to crime – especially violent incidents such as murder, rape and aggravated robbery – notwithstanding our appreciation that this is not a matter only for judges.
There used to be a big complaint of the long time it took for cases to be completed in Jamaica, thus infringing citizens’ right to justice within a reasonable time. After Mr Sykes became chief justice in 2018 he set out to do something about it, pledging to bring Jamaica in line with global best practices. In the High Court, where major, and usually more complex, cases are heard, the target is for matters to be disposed of within two years. At the parish courts (former magistrates’ courts), the expectation is for them to be completed within months. In keeping with this objective, backlog in cases – the excess of new filings over those cleared during a year – was to fall by 2026 to around five per cent, or the international benchmark.
Last week, Justice Sykes reported that the figure was below three per cent. The recently released statistics for the second quarter said that “only 1.37 per cent of active cases in the Criminal Division … are in a state of backlog”, although the gross backlog was above 10 per cent.
Said Justice Sykes of the data, “There are no other courts in the region – not in the Caribbean, not in Central America, not in South America – that have achieved that for courts at that level. That has placed us in a position now to revise the time standard downwards.”
This, the chief justice suggested, was a platform from which to accelerate the performance. Two years ago, it took 15 months, on average, for a case to be completed in a parish court. According to the chief justice, 77 per cent of them are now cleared in under a year. “So, where we are heading now is to bring that down to nine months,” he said.
Clearly, swift, sure and fair justice is of significant value to society. People accused of crimes or other breaches of the law are assured of a speedy resolution of the complaints, rather than having their lives on hold because of lingering indictments. Further, an efficient justice system should help to deter crime if guilty people are caught, tried, convicted and punished within reasonable time. Criminals, in those circumstances, won’t operate with impunity.
However, of the criminal cases disposed of in parish courts last year, approximately 38 per cent were guilty verdicts – 35 per cent via guilty pleas and three per cent through convictions.
Dismissed matters (23 per cent) and not-guilty verdicts (13 per cent) accounted for 36 per cent of the cases, while roughly 10 per cent were mediated settlements.
However, it is what happens in the Supreme Court, and the outcomes of cases there, that will mostly concentrate the minds of Jamaicans. On the face of it, although cases are generally handled more swiftly, prosecutors appear not to do very well at that higher level of the judicial system.
In 2022, the Home Circuit Court’s Criminal Division disposed of 479 charges across 174 cases. There were 127 guilty outcomes, for a conviction rate of 26.5 per cent.
Murders accounted for approximately 28 per cent (133) of the charges disposed of. Thirty-two of them ended in guilty outcomes, either by way of convictions or guilty pleas – a conviction rate of 24.06 per cent. “Which suggests a roughly 24 per cent probability that a murder matter could end in a guilty outcome …” the court’s statistical document noted.
While that was a 3.26 percentage point increase on the previous year’s figure, it is unlikely to be the kind of ratio that will give great confidence to Jamaicans, especially when considered against the backdrop of the long time it usually takes for murder matters to be resolved.
In the Gun Court, the conviction rate for the illegal possession of a firearm (38 per cent of charges) and the illegal possession of ammunition (22 per cent charges) were 51 per cent and 48 per cent, respectively. The court’s overall conviction rate, however, was 30 per cent.
Additionally, someone charged with rape (there were 40 charges last year) had an 85 per cent chance in 2022 of beating the rap. Put another way, in only 15 per cent of the charges were there guilty outcomes.
The odds, however, were not so favourable for someone who had sex with a person under 16; the conviction rate on the 56 changes was roughly 44 per cent, or 21 counts.
It seems important to get behind these statistics to understand why they, at least to this newspaper, appear low. Investigators and prosecutors should explain if, and how, they intend to match the court’s improving efficiency.