In newspapers and courthouses, deadlines matter

“Laws are like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through.”
— Jonathan Swift, Anglo-Irish satirist and author

All too often, the execution of justice in the Cayman Islands is less “swift” than it is “Swiftian.”

Case in point: Wednesday’s news from the courts that no fewer than 107 charges against Island Builders Ltd., relating to allegations of unpaid overtime work, were being dismissed by Magistrate Angelyn Hernandez.

The magistrate made no determination regarding the merits of the charges themselves, which involved amounts ranging from $20 to $5,000, but said she was forced to dismiss them because Director of Labour and Pensions Mario Ebanks had exceeded the legally prescribed time frame of six months in which to file the action. In other words, Mr. Ebanks’s Department of Labour and Pensions took too long.

Nearly all of the 107 claims (106 of them, to be precise) rested on an audit of Island Builders the department began in February 2013. The magistrate observed that the launching of the probe was sufficient to initiate legal action right then and there, but nothing was done until March 2014, a delay of 13 months.
Because these are Summary Court matters, charges must be laid within “six months from the date on which evidence sufficient to justify proceedings came to the actual or constructive knowledge of a competent complainant,” according to Cayman’s Criminal Procedure Code.

The magistrate offered a scathing criticism of the department: “It is evident from these matters that the department requires a complete re-education of its responsibilities and its obligations under the law.”

Now, more than two years after the original offense allegedly occurred, here is the situation: Island Builders walks away, without a determination of guilt or innocence; the workers, who claim they are owed money, get nothing at all; and the department escapes with a few harsh words and little else.

What happens next?

We contacted Mr. Ebanks and Employment Minister Tara Rivers.

They said the department is appealing the magistrate’s decision, based on a disagreement over when the department had gathered “sufficient evidence” in order to file charges, and when that six-month clock started to tick.

They said public consultation on revising the Labour Law was due “in short order,” with one item on the agenda to be consideration of the relevant statute of limitations.

Neither so much as mentioned the 107 workers, nor spoke directly to any immediate relief. While hopes and promises figured prominently, neither addressed substantively Magistrate Hernandez’s admonition to the department for “a complete re-education of its responsibilities and its obligations under the law.”

Mr. Ebanks referred to the limited resources of his department (a plea that, legally speaking, carries no weight in court). Ms. Rivers, on the other hand, said that the current Labour Law’s lack of any explicit statute of limitations “does not, however, in any way lessen the expectation and mandate that both the Department of Labour and Pensions and the Department of Public Prosecutions must act expeditiously and within the framework of the law to ensure that justice can be served for employees who have been subjected to breaches of the law.”

While Ms. Rivers’s statement is less “understanding” than Mr. Ebanks’s of the department’s shortcomings, we imagine neither is of much consolation to the 107 workers who say they have been shortchanged.