EDITORIAL – Toward a more efficient system of justice

Photo: Chris Court

When it comes to parties and banquets, it can be perfectly acceptable to arrive ‘fashionably late’. In other situations, there is no latitude for delays. This applies to spaceship launches, New Year’s countdowns – and courtroom procedures.

Yet in the Cayman Islands, the administration of justice continues to be stymied by postponements and deferrals, which can be variously attributed to human behaviour, constrained resources, or rules and regulations themselves. Delays in the courtroom affect, and are affected by, overcrowded schedules (for judges and attorneys) and overcrowded facilities (in courts and prisons).

The build-up of cases leads to a build-up of costs, ultimately borne by taxpayers. In the worst scenarios, justice that is indefinitely deferred is equivalent to justice denied.

A cursory flip through the pages of the Compass from the past few weeks reveals stories threaded through with courtroom delays. For example:

A driver whose taxi struck and killed a visiting doctor outside the airport was sentenced to community service – one year and eight months after the accident occurred.

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A business owner was charged with unlawful gaming, stemming from alleged offences that took place more than a year ago, and with the matter first appearing in court about six months ago.

Three men pled guilty to ‘illegal landing’ and were sentenced to 76 days’ imprisonment … after they had already been in custody for 79 days.

And there is, of course, the granddaddy of all dragged-out cases, the pension-related charges against Champion House restaurant that have been before the court since 2008. The next court date has been set for 27 May.

“This has to be finalised. We can’t wait forever,” Magistrate Valdis Foldats said when the Champion House matter was last in court in mid-April.

Those are just the stories that appeared in the Compass. Many more delayed cases resulted in ‘non-stories’ that were never written or published, for the simple reason that, except for the delay, nothing happened for us to report.

And while courtroom dramas are often characterised by competing interests and individuals, when it comes to incessant delays, as a rule everyone is similarly frustrated – defendants, lawyers, police, prosecutors and judges … perhaps no one more so than Chief Justice Anthony Smellie, who has crusaded for years for the allocation of more resources for the justice system, and the creation of new, modern and more spacious courthouse facilities.

Last September, the chief justice appeared to achieve a breakthrough, as it was confirmed that government had purchased the former Scotiabank building on Cardinall Avenue to renovate and use for additional court space. A business case on the refurbishment project is anticipated to be released soon.

Although the need for the extra room is obvious, officials have stipulated repeatedly over the years that new physical facilities are not sufficient by themselves to relieve the logjams in Cayman’s courtrooms. Toward that end, all options should be available for consideration, whether involving amending legislation; changing procedures; investing more resources in judges, prosecutors and legal aid; etc.

We would not argue that ‘swiftness’ is the primary attribute of an ideal court system, but speed and efficiency certainly are necessary components for the effective administration of justice.

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  1. One of the main difficulties the courts face is the recruitment of suitably qualified Judges – a task which is hampered by the retirement age imposed by the constitution, and the comparatively low salary on offer. Together these deter the best candidates from applying.