THE POMP and circumstance of yesterday’s ceremonial opening of the law term betrayed a fundamental and overlooked feature of our legal system. For most people, the law is not a parade of gowns, speeches, and other pleasantries. It is the cold hard reality of the magistracy. It’s a reality in the throes of a litany of problems far removed from the quaint scenes at the Trinity Cathedral and Hall of Justice yesterday.
The high-level controversies and scandals that have often plagued the judiciary, under successive chief justices, have only served to distract from the need to address fundamental aspects of the operation of the courts. As such, yesterday’s call for change by the dean of the law faculty at the University of the West Indies, Prof Rose-Marie Belle Antoine, is most welcomed.
“Time to bring the magistracy systems into the 21st century,” she said, addressing attendees at the inter-faith service marking the opening of the law term. She was alluding to the sheer number of cases, the unnecessary delays, the cramped conditions, and unsuitable infrastructure, among other problems. This is worsened by the inaccessibility of the overall system due to high legal fees, a matter that has rarely been addressed openly.
In defending his tenure as the longest-serving Chief Justice in recent memory, Ivor Archie made sure to point to ongoing reforms and innovations. Many of these are laudable and properly seek to reorient the judiciary along a path of delivery and customer satisfaction.
But even Archie had to admit the limited resources at his disposal and the problems of effecting change. He started his speech in a defeatist tone, alluding to an old joke in which Henry VIII’s wife laments not knowing what to do differently from those who came before her.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Archie said, borrowing Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. We might as well dub the whole affair A Tale of Two Judiciaries: one in which clear strides are being made, another in which not enough is happening.
Taking note of Antoine’s lament, Archie did acknowledge the magistracy represents “the face of justice for over 95 per cent of our population.” He outlined efforts to bring about registry facilities devoted to summary court matters and noted the elimination of preliminary inquiries will help reduce the burden once staff for the High Court can be found. Yet the bugbears that have hampered progress, relating to funding levels and to technical capability, remain.
Overall, Archie alluded to a big rise in the disposition of cases – up more than 40 per cent when compared with the previous period – and plans to afford the judiciary much-needed office space at the International Waterfront Centre once Parliament vacates. However, this process will see some degree of disruption and it is not clear how this will affect the most important end-client: the ordinary citizen.