Editorial | Urgency with new judges, Mr Chuck
Maybe it is the lawyer in him, but Delroy Chuck, the justice minister, doesn't usually speak with precision, as was the case last week when he talked in Parliament about the planned recruitment of judges. Vacancies, he said, "should be filled as soon as possible," without being specific on when.
He did, however, dangle the prospect of September for judges of the Court of Appeal. That, too, wasn't definitive.
To be fair to Mr Chuck, he acknowledged the delays of the court system, with its estimated backlog of about a quarter-million, perhaps even half a million cases. "Court cases are now being set for trial in 2022," he lamented. "That is totally undesirable."
This four-year wait for cases to be heard is against the backdrop of a 50 per cent clearance rate for matters in the Supreme Court, according to statistics for 2017, the first year for which the High Court issued data. But the clearance rate doesn't provide a comprehensive picture of the situation.
The raw numbers show that 12,604 cases were filed in the court in 2017, against 5,933 that were cleared. That's a clearance rate of 49.7 per cent. However, of the cases cleared, only 16 per cent, or 962, were filed in 2017. Or, analysed differently, of all the cases filed in 2017, approximately eight per cent were completed within the year. That is, 92 per cent of them spilled over to 2018 - and probably beyond.
This backlog of cases is not only in the Supreme Court. The problem exists, too, in the Court of Appeal. While appeal judges last year ruled on 72 per cent more cases than in 2016 - 247 against 144 - by year end, they hadn't moved the dial on the backlog.
Indeed, at the end of 2017, the court had 1,594 outstanding cases - including 272 filed that year - for an increase of 1.6 per cent. Part of the reason for this continued pile-up is the failure of the Supreme Court to transfer files and related material. There are also internal inefficiencies.
But as the court's president, Dennis Morrison, has complained, these problems are exacerbated by having too few judges - as is acknowledged all round. In 2008, for instance, the law was changed to allow for an increase in the complement of appeal judges from seven to 13. But the additional appointments haven't been made, supposedly because of a lack of space to house new courtrooms and chambers for the additional justices. That problem is apparently being fixed.
ACTION OVER UNSPECIFIC PROMISES
"Certainly, by September the vacancies in the Court of Appeal will be able to be addressed with the provision of the new and expanded facilities for that court," Mr Chuck said.
In addition to the shortage of six appeal judges, the Supreme Court, which is supposed to have 41 judges, is nine below that establishment. And it has only half of the eight masters-in-chambers. The system is also short of 12 of the 70 parish judges. In other words, the Supreme Court is below its establishment for judges by 22 per cent, and the parish courts by 17 per cent.
"There are simply too many outstanding cases and too much work in the court system for these vacancies to remain unfilled," Mr Chuck said. No one disagrees with him.
What people want, though, is action rather than unspecific promises. Rather than providing non-specific timelines, Mr Chuck should have been telling of recruitment being under way and saying when the new judges will be on the bench. He should do that now. The system ought to be creative enough to accommodate the additional judges even without the new facilities being fully ready.