“HAPPY families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” Tolstoy once wrote. The latest public spat between Chief Justice Ivor Archie and High Court Justice Carol Gobin is an example of a dispute that should properly be kept within the family. It distracts from what should be the focus: the overdue expansion of the Family Court.
The latest dispute centres on administrative practices relating to transfers. What has been the practice in this regard? Are the current circumstances exceptional? As with most family disputes, both sides feel they are in the right. But it is law, precedent, best practice and public policy that should prevail.
The Family Court has been one of the more successful stories within judicial reform. It began as a pilot project but is now a part of the overall legal landscape. Prior to the establishment of this court, family disputes were handled in the same environment as criminal matters and civil cases. This was not conducive to calm discussion and settlement. The Family Court tries to get parties to solve their problems themselves. The objective is to encourage solutions rather than the deepening of conflict.
The importance of such an approach cannot be overemphasised. Our justice system is already overburdened. The sheer volume of cases points to recidivism and a failure to rehabilitate. The Family Court can be an effective intervention, teaching people to resolve conflict before they mushroom into more dangerous extremes, the kind of extremes that would land them in a criminal court.
Given the court’s mandate of reconciliation, it is ironic that a dispute has broken out over it. It cannot be good for the Tobago bureau of the court to have its new head appointed in this manner. At the same time, judges too, on both sides of this impasse, have a right to state their case. However, Gobin should be wary of appearing to be acting out of chagrin given her public criticisms of the Chief Justice.
Similarly, the Chief Justice should not seek to bring personal factors, such as matters relating to Gobin’s family, into the public forum. Such matters should be irrelevant or else we risk conveying the impression of people being penalised for their management of their family life, something that is nobody’s business but theirs.
As things stand, the Family Court’s operations are currently restricted to St George West for magisterial matters. However, this does not apply to the High Court jurisdiction. Cabinet approval has been granted for the roll-out of the court to other locations, beginning with San Fernando where the old St Joseph’s Convent building has been acquired for this purpose.
The new Tobago court is a welcome initiative. Let’s not spoil a good thing. The Chief Justice and the judge have to lead by example. They should show the kind of reconciliation the court would provide.