In unanimous criticism of the backlog of cases in the judicial system and the sloth at which decisions are handed down, the National Assembly yesterday passed a bill setting time limits for judicial decisions and imposing penalties if judges fail to comply.
The chronic backlog, largely in appeal and civil cases, continues to escalate as new matters are recorded, pushing the numbers of cases waiting to be heard to the thousands while mediation continues to be underutilized since its initiation a few years ago.
Recognizing the critical need for expeditious decisions in the litigious society here, the House criticized the pace of delivery of written decisions saying that it often take years in some cases, and called for judges to be more reasonable in their conduct of matters in keeping with constitutional provisions.
Under Article 197 (3) of the Constitution, a Judge may be removed from office “for persistently not writing decisions or for continuously failing to give decisions and reasons therefore within such time as may be specified by the Parliament….” Upon enactment, the law would apply to Judges of the Court of Appeal, the High Court and the Full Court. Additionally, cases concluded before the commencement of the law where decisions have not been given would be subject to the law.
Chief Justice (ag) Ian Chang was singled out for the exemplary model he has been over the years in handing down timely decisions, in some instance as swift as two days; one reference exalted him as rare even in the wider, regional jurisdiction.
The legislation also provides that “a case shall be tried as expeditiously as possible in an endeavour to conclude the case within such a time as the complexity and the relevant evidence necessitate.” It says that a judge who presides at the trial of a civil case shall give an oral or written decision and the concomitant reasons at the conclusion of the hearing of the case or as soon as possible-but not later than 120 days afterward.
Attorney General, Charles Ramson, who introduced the bill, recalled his time on the bench as a judge saying that he found it inconceivable why any conscientious judge would fail to deliver a decision in a timely manner, adding that “if I had my way they wouldn’t get 120 days”.
Ramson said that what the bill is asking for is within the capacity of serving judges, noting that he had in the past conducted detailed trials and produce written decisions that went unchallenged less than a week later.
He said that that the administration’s decision to introduce the bill was prompted by public outcry for a more efficient judiciary, noting that the provisions outlined are logical and expected given the widespread concerns. He emphasized that the intention of the administration is not to place a harness on the conduct of judges, but simply to efficacy to the process at which justice is arrived.
Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly and PNCR-1G MP, Clarissa Riehl referred to the legislation as important, but she pointed to the lack of facilities in the judicial system that, “are critical to how judges execute their duties”.
While noting that there can be no excuse why the backlog persists, Riehl said, that the system still lacks audio recording devices. She criticized the practice of judges recording evidence by hand saying that the time has come for the proper equipment to be in place.
Riehl bemoaned the figures of cases which she said are decaying in the system, noting that only last year 9,037 new civil cases were filed in the High Court, while the figure for the previous year was 6,800. She added that the complement of judges in the court needs to be addressed given that it has been constant since 1975.
PPP/C MP and attorney-at-law Anil Nandlall slammed the court backlog as, “a travesty that has obtained for too long” while declaring that judges have a responsibility to litigants and the populace at large to deliver timely judgments. He opined that if the issue is not addressed the system will ultimately boil over with cases.
Nandlall said that too many matters are waiting to be heard, adding that some litigants and lawyers die while waiting for a hearing. He said too, that a substantial amount of property and finances are tied up in matters waiting to be heard and or waiting on decisions.
Further, he said that the judiciary must clear its mind of any suggestion that the legislation is an attack or an indictment on their part, adding that the administration also has no intent to undermine the impartiality of the judiciary.
Alliance For Change Chairman, Khemraj Ramjattan, registered his party’s full support for the bill, but charged that it should have been introduced seven years ago. He lamented that the situation has reached the stage where the House had to intervene.
“.. that we have come here and have to put up legislation to this effect speaks volume about the backlog and the fact that judgments are not being handed down in a reasonable time”, he added.
PPC/MP Moses Nagamootoo also spoke on the bill saying that it is long overdue.
The legislation also sets out instances for an extension of time to be granted for decisions by the Chancellor of the Judiciary. It stipulates that a Judge shall apply in writing, within a period of twenty-one days before the expiration of the specified time limit, giving reasons and evidence of the circumstances necessitating the extension and the proposed duration. The Chancellor, the Bill says, would have discretion to grant any specified duration or extension of time, including in cases where the case is complex, where the Judge has fallen ill and provided that no injustice results from the extension. But where the Chancellor is not satisfied that an extension ought to be granted, the Judge would be directed to give the decision within 30 days of the expiration of the time limit.
The law would also require Judges to inform the Chancellor where they failed to comply with the time limits. Additionally, the Chancellor is empowered to require, by regulations, judges to submit annual reports accounting for cases they have been assigned.
Further, it also provides for the Chancellor to instruct the registrar to submit to the National Assembly an annual report for the preceding year listing each case of non compliance, notice of non compliance and where extensions were granted.
However, the Bill explicitly states that there shall not be debate in the Assembly on the conduct of a Judge.