Sunday 1st May, 2005

Anand Ramlogan
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CJ Sharma must hold on firmly

We must be careful that the efficient administration of justice does not become a casualty in the battle between Chief Justice Sat Sharma and Prime Minister Patrick Manning.

Despite the swirling controversy concerning the attempt to investigate allegations against the CJ, the latter, as captain, has to maintain a firm grasp of the helm and steer his ship with its all-important cargo of justice in the right direction.

Last week, the State conceded that it was responsible for the death of nuts vendor Selwyn Andrews, who died in police custody on August 5, 1994. The writ was filed in 1995. Incredibly, the case took 10 years to come up for hearing, with the State simply capitulating and accepting liability.

Andrews’ mother and his three young children will finally have something to rejoice about but one can hardly ignore the harrowing effects of this long and tiresome journey for justice.

The most noticeable thing about the judiciary in the last ten years is the genuine attempt by most to try and clear up the enormous backlog that existed. The inordinate delay in getting cases heard undermined public confidence in the administration of justice and makes the law look like an ass.

By and large, things have improved considerably. In the Court of Appeal, in particular, there is now no backlog. The backlog in the High Court has been reduced and the waiting time for a trial date slashed by more than half. But new problems have cropped up and old ones continue to plague the system.

One of the most important developments that has hampered the efforts of judges to clear up the backlog is the phenomenal amount of judicial review and constitutional cases being filed. By their very nature, they require prompt attention and are oftentimes done at the expense of older matters that have been in the queue for much longer.

The passing of legislation such as the Freedom of Information Act and the Integrity in Public Life Act has also spawned new and unforeseeable litigation.

Thus, while the backlog is being reduced, the workload of the judiciary has been increasing, with the result that the full impact of the fine efforts on the part of most judges might not be as conspicuous as it should. We definitely need more High Court judges.

One of the major problems in the High Court at present is the long delay experienced after a trial in getting judgment from the court. There is nothing more frustrating than this for a litigant because it adds to the agony and suspense they experienced in having to wait for a trial date in the first place. Having had a trial, they expect swift justice and this is not always the case.

The blame is not necessarily that of the judges either. As they move from one case to the other each day, it is understandably very easy to become engulfed in the whirlpool of cases. Judges need to be given time-off away from the courts so that they can write judgments. The official vacation time is simply not enough as they, too, are only human and need time to relax with their families and friends.

The only way this can be accomplished is by increasing the number of High Court judges.

At present, there are many important cases in the public interest and others where society and private litigants have been awaiting judgment for far too long. I was only recently given judgments in some matters I had completed some two to four years ago. Apart from these, there are others where over a year has passed or the one-year anniversary is fast approaching. I am sadly not the only attorney in this position.

Just off the cuff, from memory alone, in terms of high-profile cases, no judgment has been delivered in the case brought by former chairman of the Unit Trust Corporation, Hubert Alleyne against the PM and the cases brought by former Industrial Court judges and former chairman of the Environmental Commission, retired Justice of Appeal Zainool Hosein against the State to challenge the refusal to re-appoint them.

These are important matters in the public interest and require some priority.

None of this is intended as a criticism of our judges. It is but an observation, which I hope will highlight the predicament of both the litigant and an overworked judiciary and the need for CJ Sharma to hold onto the reins very firmly along this very bumpy road.

He cannot shy away from the fact that more resources are needed by the judiciary as a matter of urgency to ease the strain on the system.

He must be strong and call upon the executive for what is needed, lest we return to (or some may say remain stuck in) the days when the law looked like an ass.

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