Ministry needs J$5 billion urgently to ‘fix’ Jamaica justice system

(Jamaica Observer) There is a backlog of some 500 cases before the Home Circuit Court, but the Ministry of Justice says it needs about J$5 billion and time to straighten out the besieged system, with no other option than turning to an already cash-strapped Ministry of Finance and Planning.

Members of Parliament’s Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) were alarmed at the figure presented to it by the Justice Ministry on Wednesday at Gordon House. But they were even more alarmed to learn that there were significantly more outstanding cases in the Resident Magistrate’s Court system not listed.

“The structure of the ministry has major weaknesses, and I do not believe we have the capacity for the work that is required,” Permanent Secretary Carol Palmer admitted.

Palmer said that her ministry has the “typical ministry structure that exists in Jamaica”, which does not work for the justice sector.

Pressed by PAAC members for an explanation as to the needs and the cost to improve the system, the permanent secretary said, “When the review of the justice system was done and the recommendations were presented one of the first recommendations was that there should be an envelope of additional funds, provided to the Ministry of Justice for the reforms to be implemented. We cannot do all the things that need to be done, when we do not have a net increase of significance in our budget.

“The reforms in the justice system need somewhere in the region of $5 billion, so if I was to tell you all that was involved, for example, in addressing the backlog of cases… because it is not simply putting the cases on the court sheet: Where is the court going to sit? Where is the courtroom? Is the building falling down?” she asked.

“We have, for example, had the laws for increases in magistrates, increases in the Supreme Court judges, increases in the Court of Appeal judges. We have not been able to increase the number of Court of Appeal judges because we do not have anywhere for them to sit. There is no courtroom, so the ministry does what it can do within its area of control, and if nothing else is provided we can do nothing more.

“We have an agenda from 2007. We had a 10-year time horizon to implement the reforms: This is 2012, and we still have not seen any tangible increase in the budget provided for the Ministry of Justice,” Palmer added

She said that the initiatives the ministry has been able to undertake have largely been funded by Independent Donor Partners (IDPs), who do not fund salaries and most of whom will not undertake construction funding.

“The only IDP that has done construction is the EU, which gave us the Lucea family court,” she said.

She said that in terms of the planned Justice Square in downtown Kingston, which should have been delivered in May and is now reset for December, “We have a bill for the contractor and I have some concerns about that; the upper floors of the building are not done and the Accountant General has not yet moved out of his building. So we have to wait.

“And court buildings are probably the most expensive construction that you have to do. We cannot have a court in any old place. In today’s world, where you have human rights considerations, you have to have protection for vulnerable witnesses; you need to separate the jury from other persons; you need to insulate the judges and court staff, because court staff are also threatened in certain instances, and even have to move away from their homes. So the justice system is plagued with a lot of problems that cannot be met purely from the ongoing budget,” she concluded.

PAAC Chairman Edmund Bartlett said that it was important that the committee make a report to Parliament in relation to the submission made by the permanent secretary.

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