EDITORIAL: Get radical with backlog
Our judicial system has been at a standstill for several years – literally. We are sure we will not find many people in the country who will argue differently.
What absolutely does not make sense in the whole affair, however, is why it has been able to persist in an area of public life that is populated by some of the most fertile brains the country has at its disposal.
It seems like almost a generation now that we have been complaining about the slow pace at which our courts work, and the horrendous impact it has been having on how we do business here. Worse is that the reputation of the country has taken a serious hit, particularly in the area of international business, because people coming from other jurisdictions to do business here can’t cope with our system that seems devoid of time standards.
Additionally, it would appear that not even criticism at the highest level – coming from members of the Cabinet and Parliament – has been able to break the back of this inefficiency that seems now to almost naturally characterise our justice system.
We have changed some major symbols: a new Chief Justice in Sir Marston Gibson and a new seat of power in the Judicial Centre on Whitepark Road. Yet Barbadians continue to wait for years for judgements, in many instances after waiting for years for the actual cases to be heard. It is easy to rationalise the impact of delayed action by the courts on some document vital to the conclusion of some business deal by a company, but we hardly think of all those people who are still people waiting years for divorce settlements, even where there is no contention.
One can’t help but get the impression that some believe we should take solace from the decision of the Caribbean Court of Justice which now compels all trial judges to consider time spent on remand when sentencing persons who have been found guilty. But if we find comfort in this, what do we say to the man who spends five years on remand only to be found not guilty? How do we give consideration to that time?
Our officials, including a string of attorneys general and at least two chief justices, have had much to say on this, have made more than a few promises and have even tried a few new things including more judges, but we can see no real tangible evidence of improvements after many years.
The time has come for radical action. The Bar Association has suggested the hiring of temporary judges, but we can’t help but ask: And which Treasury will pay them?
We are told that about 20 000 new cases are lodged in the magistrate’s courts each year and between 2 500 and 3 000 in the High Court. The backlog of cases between the two levels of the system amounts to tens of thousands – and it’s growing.
How will it hurt the society if all cases involving small quantities of illegal drugs associated with personal use were en masse subjected to a “reprimand and discharge conclusion” once the accused agree to plead guilty. How much of the backlog would be removed if a base year was agreed to by those with the power to act and all “petty” criminal charges recorded before that date were treated the same way, so no conviction is recorded.
These two suggestions may not be workable in the way we have put them forward since we are not experts in the field, but surely it can’t be beyond the country to deal with this matter. We cannot continue to complain about a problem when at best the effort we put into solving it is questionable.