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Punish them! - Justice Minister says reforms needed to discipline judges without requiring removal

Published:Tuesday | May 2, 2017 | 7:22 PMJovan Johnson

Punishing judges without necessarily seeking their removal is among needed accountability reforms, according to Justice Minister Delroy Chuck, who has given a parliamentary speech hailing "a new face of justice" in Jamaica.

"There is no expressed provision regarding disciplinary concerns in matters which may not rise to the level of potential removal from office," Chuck said yesterday in his Sectoral Debate contribution to the House of Representatives.

Currently, judicial accountability in Jamaica mainly focuses on conduct or misbehaviour that could see judges removed from office. But the Andrew Holness administration is now saying that things need to change, and Opposition Spokesman on Justice Mark Golding says he is in support.

"In an era of reform, Jamaica needs to consider the appropriate mechanisms that should be in place to raise the bar of accountability in the judiciary," the justice minister argued.

The comments come amid ongoing public discourse over Chief Parish Court Judge Judith Pusey's 2015 conviction of a woman without lawyer, testimony or trial. The Court of Appeal overturned the decision in April, saying it "should not ever have occurred".

Chief Justice Zaila McCalla did not give an update on the judicial code of conduct reportedly being worked on when, at a recent swearing-in of judges, she said she was "concerned" by the Pusey issue and suggested she held discussions with the judge.

Saying he would not interfere in the judiciary's independence, Chuck, like he did when he took the portfolio last year, also said judges have a duty to ensure the timely delivery of rulings which, he argued, has implications for the economy.

justice dysfunctional, underfunded

Meanwhile, the justice minister said he was marshalling the changing face of justice in Jamaica, which he lamented has been dysfunctional and underfunded. But he argued that even though the sector gets less than two per cent of the national budget, current resources can be used more effectively.

That includes reducing the backlog of cases. The figure has been disputed, but there are, reportedly, more than 400,000 cases with delays spanning more than five years.

The ministry is targeting a 10 per cent cut in case backlog this year, and the establishment of 14 parish justice centres (PJCs) by March 31 next year, Chuck believes, will help to achieve the goal. "We expect that a significant number of the cases that would normally be resolved in the traditional court system will be diverted to these justice centres. Members of the public who have need for legal aid can go to these parish centres."

The PJCs will be responsible for coordinating alternative dispute resolution such as mediation and arbitration. The costs to do this were not announced, but Chuck said vacant public properties will be put to use. The first one will be opened in St Ann in July. St Mary's and Portland's will be done in August and October.

That plan, along with expanding courtroom space, establishing a mobile legal aid clinic, strengthening the prosecutorial service and the proposed establishment of a civil court this fiscal year for western Jamaica, Chuck said, defined "new face of justice" in Jamaica.

Golding said he welcomes the PJCs but hopes that setting those up will not be as expensive as establish the regional court systems.