Justices of the peace: Time to modernize

At the risk of oversimplifying, it appears obvious that anyone signing a document taking away a person’s right to privacy or liberty should have substantial legal training.

Yet for decades that hasn’t been the case in the Cayman Islands, which has relied on a system of justices of the peace – there are some 200 in the country – to approve arrest and search warrants when court magistrates were not available.

In recent years, the system of laypersons has caused the country considerable legal trouble (and legal expenses), most recently when Caymanian Sandra Catron brought a successful legal challenge over a July 2012 search of her home and vehicle.

In that instance, an untrained JP apparently didn’t understand the technology-related offense that was alleged by police.

Grand Court Justice Alexander Henderson, who tossed out the search warrant, was himself the subject of an unlawful search and arrest in September 2008 during Operation Tempura, based on a warrant signed by a JP.

The office of justice of the peace has a venerable history, dating back to the establishment of the title in 1361 during the reign of Edward III and predated by the “Custodes Pacis” commissioned by Richard the Lionheart in 1195.

There was an era when the system may have been Cayman’s only option to see justice served in a prompt and efficient manner.

However, things have long since changed. Now Cayman is a major global financial center and popular tourist destination and is home to some 130 different nationalities.

Unfortunately, some aspects of government’s operations haven’t kept pace with modern times, and the JP system is one of them.

We were pleased to learn last year that proposals to reform the system were headed to the Legislative Assembly, with advice from the chief justice and deputy governor.

We were similarly pleased to hear that all of Cayman’s JPs are undergoing a mandatory training program to familiarize themselves with new regulations.

The new code of conduct includes self-evident and common-sense procedures such as keeping a written record of signatures witnessed and warrants issued, not using the title to advance personal interests, and undergoing updated training every three years.

Ideally, JPs would undergo legal training before being allowed to sign arrest and search warrants – or at the very least meet recently revised standards for less-powerful notaries public – but the new code of conduct for JPs is a positive development.

We’re not arguing that JPs should be eliminated entirely. It appears that JPs can, and do, perform certain functions (such as witnessing and signing official documents) more efficiently than would be possible if people had to apply to the courts each time.

If the legal bills, quashed arrests and public embarrassment have not been chastisement enough, we encourage the police to think seriously before bringing search warrants involving complex matters before JPs in the future.

Hopefully the new reforms and training will bring the quality of Cayman’s holders of this ancient office up to modern standards and enable them to play an integral role of trust in our criminal justice system, going beyond the vanity of having the initials “JP” appended to names on business cards.