Renee Cowan | Courtroom or torture chamber?
Jamaica is not serious about providing justice for its citizens. In fact, our justice system is a fancy term for organised frustration cradled with professionals who have grown accustomed to very few results. While I am not familiar with how things were immediately after Independence, the justice system is certainly impotent today. There is no urgency in having cases heard, serving summonses, providing privacy for victims, or ensuring that the process for filing a complaint is easy and accessible to the average Joe.
Our nonchalant politicians are seemingly more focused on announcing extravagant plans to improve the justice system rather than meticulously reviewing the issues close to the hearts of the real stakeholders: victims of crime, overworked judges, lawyers, social workers, court administrators, clerks of the court, and customer service representatives.
The Family Court on Duke Street in Kingston is a good example of the dysfunction. On any given weekday, victims seeking to file complaints at that courthouse can be seen huddled together in a tiny waiting area with little or no ventilation, and one dusty fan that has run its course. There is one run-down bathroom, with no toiletries, that serves both the persons making complaints and those visiting for court sessions, totalling a minimum of about 50 to 100 persons each day. There are no attendants working around the clock to ensure that it remains clean.
System found wanting
Once a victim's name is called, they are ushered into a makeshift office to speak with a social worker and file the complaint. With the exception of a few old chairs and a table, the room is void.
Once that session is through, the victim is then ushered down to the first floor, where there is another very long wait to speak with a court clerk. Here, the victim is further advised to provide additional information, sign a few forms, and assigned a court date for the formal hearing and also a date to pick up the summons.
Yes, the victim must return to the courthouse a week or two after the complaint is filed to pick up the summons and decide whether to have a court-assigned bailiff (free service, but not reliable) or a police officer (paid service a bit more reliable) deliver the summons to the accused.
The Court hearing assigned date ranges anywhere from one to four months unless you are a popular public figure, or if the issue has received wide-scale media attention.
Having waited months for a hearing date and then waiting for hours on the actual date to have the hearing, a victim may learn that a summons was never served to the aggressor. Of course, this revelation is normally revealed after a victim has given the judge a synopsis of the issue and answers several related questions. This is even though the victim is required, when filing a complaint, to provide their contact details, work address and home address.
Interestingly, court-assigned bailiffs will not go to an alternative address to serve a summons if they were unable to find the aggressor at the first address visited. This is since they are paid to make delivery to only one address.
The victim will then be given another court hearing date by the judge to facilitate the aggressor. This new date will range anywhere between a month and the next available date. The victim is also required to pick up a new summons and make arrangement for delivery. Depending on the particular issue, the victim could very well be in grave danger from their aggressor. There is, however, no provision by the court to provide temporary protection order for the victim if there is any immediate evidence of threat.
The end result with this nightmare of our justice system is that many victims will end up dead without ever having their cases tried or concluded. It cannot be the responsibility of the victim to ensure that the summons is served to the aggressor, especially in situations where the aggressor may kill the victim.
In a small island where violence is so prevalent, our justice system has to become more proactive. Laws must be changed to alleviate these problems, when solutions no longer work, we change them.