The Supreme Court building, downtown Kingston. There have been reports of missing case files at the court's registry.
Today we conclude a special six-part series on the state of justice in Jamaica. The series is written by one of the country's most experienced senior court journalists, Barbara Gayle. We welcome your feedback. Send it to: email@example.com or fax: 922-6223
Barbara Gayle, Staff Reporter
Horace Harding, a motorist who appeared before the Kingston Traffic Court, ended up serving a 30-day sentence twice for dangerous driving, because of the inefficient record-keeping system at the court office there. He said on September 12 last year, he pleaded guilty to the charge and was fined $5,000 or 30 days imprisonment. He did not have the money to pay so he served the sentence at the St. Catherine Adult Correctional Centre, Spanish Town.
Three weeks after he was released from prison, he said the police arrested him on a warrant and took him back to the Traffic Court for the same offence.
Harding, who was moved to tears while relating his story, said tha he informed the court that he had already served the sentence for the same offence, the record was not checked to verify his statement and he had to serve another 30 days imprisonment all over again, at the same prison for the same offence.
He is of the view that traffic offenders like himself should not be sent to prisons like the one at Spanish Town where there are so many hardened criminals, to serve such short a sentence. Also, he believes judges should take special care to listen to what accused persons have to say and order that proper checks be made, where necessary, to avoid injustices such as that which was meted out to him. Harding has reported the matter to the Office of the Public Defender.
If the court system were computerised, Harding would not have been subjected to double jeopardy. Computerisation of the court system including the Supreme Court, Gun Court, Resident Magistrate's Courts islandwide and divisions such as the Traffic Court and the Coroner's Court , must be given priority as this would increase the efficiency of the courts and the court offices and make information and documents more easily available to the public. Lawyers and litigants complain often about the long delay in getting information from some courts offices.
A lawyer has observed that at some courts offices, there were times when some members of staff would go the extra mile to find documents and files for certain lawyers. But he had never had such courtesies extended to him, he said.
When he made enquiries, he was told by another lawyer that one ought not to be "tight-fisted". On asking what that meant, he was told that encouragement sweetens labour. He then understood it to mean that he should give a gift of cash or kind. But he is adamant that he would never do that, adding: the government must make the justice system workable so that even the man off the street can go to the information desk and get the necessary information expeditiously."
The truth is that the inefficient and chaotic system of record keeping at some court offices has led to thriving corruption in some sections, with some staff members charging members of the public exorbitant sums for their services to find documents or records they should not have to pay for.
A police officer said he had received complaints from litigants about the situation, but most times they are reluctant to follow through and give statements and so there have been relatively few arrests. He suggested that signs be placed at strategic points at court offices to warn the public not to get involved in such rackets and state specifically what fees, if any, must be paid for particular documents.
Missing case files
Complaints of missing case files at the Supreme Court Registry continue despite pronouncements some years ago that all documents being filed there would be scanned into a computer, and judges would have computer terminals in their chambers so they could access the database and so, even where a physical file was missing, the document would be on the computer system.
Frank Phipps, Q.C., blasted the justice system this January when, three weeks after he filed a suit in the Supreme Court Registry, the file could not be found. After waiting there for more than an hour while the staff searched for it, he left saying that when it was found he would return for the hearing, which was scheduled in chambers for that day. The file was eventually found but Phipps expressed great displeasure at the system of record keeping at the Supreme Court and asked whether they had ever heard of computers.
Steps have since been taken to have the files stored in a special section after they have been taken from court. A court official said that since February 2007, special efforts were being made to record the results of cases from court files as soon as the cases were dealt with in court or in chambers. But according to the court official, much more time will be needed to update all the files because it was only the active files that were being dealt with.
It is not unusual for people to turn up at the courthouse requesting information in relation to cases which have been disposed of from as far back as the 1960s, the court official disclosed.
The court official pointed out that such information was not easy to come by because, even if a clerk was assigned to search for a particular file, the clerk was going to report that it was not found because the real truth is that unless the person has the suit number or even the year it was filed or disposed of, then it would be like looking for a needle in a hay stack. The court official said that The Supreme Court was badly in need of a records officer to deal with those files.
The final orders of those old cases should really be scanned into computers and reserved because the Supreme Court is a court of record," the court official added.