The Critical Role of the JP and the Lay Magistrate in strengthening Jamaica’s Justice System

I want to share with you some thoughts on the critical role of the JP and the lay magistrate in strengthening Jamaica’s Justice System

May I begin with this observation: There is an insufficient appreciation amongst our people and perhaps amongst some JPs themselves that they are not only a servant of the community, important as that is,  they are technically,  “judicial public officer”, albeit a voluntary one; our citizens often do not realise and need to be made aware that all JPs undergo qualifying training and many specialised training  and that the JP is an officer that “is significant in the system of administration of justice in Jamaica”, in children’s courts for example, and in the drug courts.

As such, the rules and regulations appointing them require the Governor General to be satisfied that each of you “is of unquestionable integrity… commands the respect and confidence of [your] community, has given good service to the community and the wider Jamaica and demonstrates the potential for continuing to so serve” (Jamaica Gazette Supplement, Dec. 14, 2006). I urge each and every one of you, JPs and Lay Magistrates, to live up to these special qualities and to uphold these high standards.

However, as is too often the case in almost every calling, there will be a few bad eggs and in such circumstances, the reputation of the good will invariably suffer for the bad. May I therefore urge you to identify any bad eggs amongst you and separate them from your ranks. Please recall your oath “to do right to all manner of people”, not just to some, maybe friends and company, and leave out others; to fulfil your responsibilities without fear or favour neither with timidity nor trepidation; most of all, recall your obligation to avoid behaviour that may “bring the administration of justice into disrepute.”


Custos, I am confident that when a complaint comes to you that suggests violation of these requirements, you shall institute the necessary inquiry and as the rules indicate, recommend revocation when the facts so justify.

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Decisive action in this regard is one important contribution to maintaining peoples’ confidence in our justice system, which – with all its flaws – is trusted more than many other key institutions of governance in Jamaica: more than the parliament, more than the police, more than the political parties. [LAPOP 2012, pg. 129; GCB 2013 page 36]. You must do everything, as JP’s and as Lay Magistrates, to contribute to this trust, to sustain and to enhance this confidence in the system as a whole. By the way, this is not just an achievement in terms of the confidence in the Justice system amongst Jamaican institutions.

Outside of Jamaica, in global terms, you and our people  should know that Jamaica’s Justice System, in particular the independence of the judiciary, is ranked in the top one-third (1/3) of 144 countries worldwide [GCR 2014-2015]. This is no cause for complacency, nor for self-congratulation, but simply to give due respect and recognition in the midst of  too much negativism, to acknowledge that all is not bad and that in fact we rank very highly on some indicators, including – may I say in passing – such as freedom of the press and on social wellbeing, where, believe it or not, we are ahead of the United States (Social Progress Index 2014).

Having said this, of course there is much room for a great deal of improvement and in that improvement, each JP has a critical role to play. Take one question, recently and justifiably very much in the news – the question of lockups. In this regard, you know better than I what your responsibilities are but many of our citizens do not. So allow me to remind and to indicate  what the official guidelines ( Appendix A to Force Orders 3237 dated 2009-06-18) stipulate: Visiting Committees of Justices of the Peace are “authorised to enter any police station in the parish in which they are appointed to… interview any prisoner alone or in the presence of a member of the force… to record any complaints… to inspect lockups… and report on their suitability in respect of i) comfort, ii) hygiene, iii) general conditions… observe and assess the state of the building housing the lockups and bring to the notice of the divisional officer, the Custos, the Commissioner of Police and the Minister of National Security, any repairs, alterations, additions, etc. which may appear necessary.” I remind you that each of the nation’s seventy (70) “lockups should be visited at least once each week… prearranged with the police, or if considered necessary, without notice.”

In light of recent events concerning the brutal, gratuitous death of Mario Deane and heightened public concerns regarding the state of our lockups, this responsibility assumes even greater importance.  Moreover Jamaica’s Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms states that Any person deprived of his liberty shall be treated humanely and with respect for the inherent dignity of the person ( 14)(5). Visits to lock-ups by our JPs not only are therefore of importance not only in responding to public outcry but, potentially, play a critical role  in upholding a fundamental constitutional right of the citizen.  In enhancing your contribution to strengthening Jamaica’s justice system, I urge you as members of Visiting Committees to accord this responsibility number 1 priority.   And ensure that your reports set out the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the state of the lock-up and those detained therein.

Of course,  I am aware that the guidelines state that reports “should remain confidential and should not be released to the public under any condition.” Those guidelines were established in 1993; the Access to Information Act, acknowledging that transparency and accountability are essential to Jamaica’s democratic governance, was passed in 2002. I suggest that in today’s circumstances, freedom of information must supersede confidentiality in a matter such as this. The public needs to know, from your duly authorised reports, what is going on; the light of day must shine into these dark cells of detention in which Jamaicans, not convicted of any crime, are being held.

Of course, even when you perform your duty, according to oath, without fear or favour, other elements in the system must also be called on to play their part in order to better uphold justice .

  • For one, successive Governments, often with the tacit support of successive electorates, habitually under-resource the justice system. Take the 2013-2014 budget; I will give any of you a prize if you can guess the percentage of the budget allocated to the Ministry of Justice. It was 0.9%, and that was almost 300 million more than the allocation for the previous period (ESSJ 2013, Chapter 24.1)
  • Next, take successive reviews of our performance under the IMF programme. It is good that we are passing these tests, but transparency requires that we need to know more – at what expense? at what cost? Each review which we pass is accompanied by revenue shortfall, requiring expenditure to be cut in order to meet agreed targets.
  • Between April and July 2014, for example, $7.7 Billion was – for this reason – cut from budgeted expenditure. The public needs to know, cut from which specific programmes and from what capital items were these cuts made? The public’s watchdog, the co-chairman of the EPOC, needs to report on this– from what budgeted line items are expenditure reductions being made when he gives his regular review. And, we have to insist that those cuts do not touch the miniscule budget of the Ministry of Justice, some critical tiny, but essential, allocations in the Ministry of National Security (and of course, with the dreaded chick-v flying around, relevant allocations to elements of the Health Ministry) _ these should not be cut. I’ll give you an example; the 2013-2014 revised estimates of expenditure tell us that $214.2 Million was spent on the administration of 70 lockups in Jamaica and the Jury process in Kingston and St. Andrew. The estimates for 2014-2015 are $151.3 Million. Can we justify further cuts in a line item such as this, especially when of the $151.3 Million allocated; $135.2 Million is for compensation of employees and expect our lock-ups to be properly maintained and our jury system to function adequately?
  • Then there is the work many of you do in the courts as Lay Magistrates. This is important work, fully appreciated seven (7) years ago in the report of the Justice Reform Task Force, chaired by the late Professor Barry Chevannes and including representatives of all elements in the Justice System, the Private Sector and Civil Society. That report referred to your function as Lay Magistrates as playing “an important and singular role within the Jamaican legal system” (page 208). In this context, it referred to your role in the Petty Sessions Courts.

But there is absolutely nothing petty about these courts, your role in these courts- nor indeed there anything petty about any aspect of the justice system. Hence the Task Force recommended that the term ‘Petty Sessions’ be abolished and the court be re-designated the ‘Lay Magistrates’ Court’. Such a re-designation costs little or no money – The time has come, indeed has long passed, for this to be done.

I would hate to believe that the IMF has to demand it as a structural benchmark before we implement it and make a change good for all of us!! So let s get it done!

I conclude by expressing sincere appreciation for the extraordinary voluntary service that each JP and Lay Magistrate contributes to strengthening Jamaica’s justice system and to urge on you constant striving to live up to  that high standard of “unquestionable integrity.”

Written by Professor Trevor Munroe

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