“As the manager of the Performance sits before the curtain on the boards, and looks into the Fair, a feeling of profound melancholy comes over him in his survey of the bustling place. … Yes, this is Vanity Fair; not a moral place certainly; nor a merry one, though very noisy. … When you come home, you sit down, in a sober, contemplative, not uncharitable frame of mind, and apply yourself to your books or your business.”
— “Vanity Fair,” William Makepeace Thackeray

In our editorials we often refer to stories that appear on the front page of the day’s newspaper. It is far rarer that we refer to a single story that is the front page of the newspaper.

Today, however, is such a day. We refer our readers to journalist James Whittaker’s enthralling — and at times, appalling — narrative of a day inside Cayman Islands Summary Court. The specific day is of little consequence, although, in this case, it happened to be Tuesday, July 12.

At the Cayman Compass we consider our remit not only to cover “breaking news” as it takes place but also, perhaps more importantly, to report at times on the “ordinary” occurrences that offer insight into our institutions and, by proxy, our people.

We did not focus on this courtroom without forethought. Summary Court is the starting point for all criminal cases in the country, has jurisdiction over smaller civil matters ($20,000 and less), and hears a variety of other cases, from domestic violence, to drug issues, to traffic matters. For many residents, Summary Court may be their sole point of contact with Cayman’s judicial system; for others, it’s just the beginning.

In brief, to peer inside Summary Court is to witness a cross-section of the Cayman population and to observe what happens at the critical intersection between the judiciary and people’s lives, many of which have gone astray.

As you can read in our front-page story, Summary Court hosts all segments of society, from the most powerful — the Dart Group — to the least — prisoners already incarcerated.

On a daily basis, Summary Court judges such as Magistrate Valdis Foldats (whose performance and patience we applaud) watch, direct and often play a role in scenes of human drama, including tragedy (drug abusers caught in cycles of addiction, crime and rehabilitation), comedy (the poacher who protests that he didn’t get to keep what he was caught poaching) and outright farce (typically perpetrated by attorneys or officials who appear before the court in order to explain that they’re not prepared to appear).

There are glimmers of possible redemption. No one can know if drug addict and serial burglar Kurtney Johnson will straighten out his life after his latest sentencing to Northward Prison, but at least, in one moment, he exhibited the admirable attitude of thankfulness to the litany of officials who are trying to help him.

Summary Court, like the world, is crowded, motley and, well, worldly. There is much activity but often little progress. What does move forward creeps slowly, in fits and starts. There is far too much counterproductive over-reasoning, and vast quantities of red tape can bind even the magistrate’s hands. The courtroom contains a volatile ecosystem that balances erudite phraseology and Byzantine procedures against common sense and very real personal consequences.

The need for wholesale reform seems undeniable, but none, we are saddened to report, currently appears to be on the horizon.