Editorial for 13 September: Justice and justices of the peace

You might think – but you’d be wrong – that the role and importance of justices of the peace in the Cayman Islands are matters of little consequence.

As the Legislative Assembly appears set to seek changes in legislation that would affect how the JP selection process is conducted, as well as their training and code of conduct, a historical look into this long-standing role of laypersons “keeping the peace” within their communities might prove instructive.

The practice of appointing upstanding members of the public to assist the constabulary and the courts can be traced back to (wouldn’t you guess?) Richard the Lionheart in the late 12th century. Then they were known as “keepers of the peace.” Justices of the peace made their debut in 1361 in England and were charged with apprehending unruly persons in the furtherance of “good behavior.”

Over the centuries, the stature and authority of JPs has risen or fallen, varying widely with time, place and circumstance. For example, in parts of 19th-century England, these appointed citizen-magistrates set wages, built and operated bridges, and even regulated food supplies and distribution. In Cayman, the Fosters, Kirkconnells and Merrens handle those chores for us more than competently, thank you very much.

In present-day Cayman, our JPs, most importantly, are empowered to sign arrest warrants and search warrants – grave responsibilities that can result in the diminution of one’s privacy or the revocation of one’s freedom. They also engage in less consequential matters, such as witnessing and signing official documents.

They perform all of their duties without the requirement of legal training, criminal justice experience or even passing a comprehensive examination.

However, as our society has become more populated with lawyers, civil libertarians, human rights advocates and learned judges, the selection and qualifications (or lack thereof) of JPs are coming under increasing scrutiny.

Earlier this year, Grand Court Justice Alexander Henderson dismissed a case largely on the grounds that a woman’s home and vehicle were searched illegally based on a warrant signed by a justice of the peace, who apparently had little or no understanding about the circumstances.

Likewise, Justice Henderson himself was the victim of a similar unlawful search during Operation Tempura, when a justice of the peace, ignorant of the facts or legalities involved, signed a warrant allowing for the search of his home. Justice Henderson eventually received a settlement of nearly $1.3 million in the Tempura matter.

The reform proposal before Cabinet would leave the ultimate appointment of JPs in the hands of the governor, but it would also give new powers to government members to set rules for qualification and training. Cabinet would recommend a field of candidates to the governor for consideration.

It is our position that the chief justice (or a panel of justices), and the attorney general (or director of public prosecutions), should occupy prominent seats at the table as the legislation is being debated and developed. At the end of the day, these are more quasi-judicial matters than they are quasi-legislative matters.