Friday, December 15, 2017

Govt eyes, ears must open to needs of courts

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Mark Fraser

 The formal law term opening, highlighted by the Chief Justice’s signature oration, inaugurated a season of curtain-raisings of kindred courts inside the judicial branch. The season identifies as the occasion on which judicial leaders, ordinarily voiceless on public affairs, engage the executive and the legislature on matters requisite for sustaining the rule of law.

Chief Justice Ivor Archie elaborated on his own reflections on the place of the judiciary in the constitutional scheme of things. He reviewed the successes and failures of his own efforts to enable the institution to fulfil its potential as a national asset. 

As the Industrial Court and the Tax Appeal Court got formally underway, both presidents echoed and enlarged upon themes put forward by Chief Justice Archie. Then they added their own specific grievances. 

Funding inadequacy was common to all the pleadings. The Chief Justice detailed how the Treasury purse strings, jealously commanded by the executive, operates to frustrate ambitions and plans for a more serviceable judiciary.

Industrial Court president Deborah Thomas-Felix called for security of tenure for members of her court. She identified as an especially sore bugbear the contracts by which Industrial Court judges are engaged. 

 End-of-contract anxiety, as regularly suffered by those judges, constitutes a destabilising factor. Delayed contract renewal, for bureaucratic or other causes, is hardly conducive to maintaining the required clear-headed independence of spirit expected of judges. 

Ms Thomas-Felix, however, boasted, and justifiably so, that no judgments from previous years remain outstanding in her court. 

 Tax Appeal president Anthony DJ Gaffoor’s catalogue of “challenges” included lack of proper accommodation, shortage of researchers and under-funding of library, online search resources, and management software tools. When, as one accounting firm has noted, tax appeal decisions could take as long as ten years to be delivered, the unhappy outcome of organisational and resource deficiencies cries out for correction.

So judicial leaders feel constrained to speak out. Their doing so, however, called forth bluntly unsympathetic, and even talking-down, responses from Attorney General Anand Ramlogan. Refusing to concede funding shortfalls, Mr Ramlogan mounted his high horse to lecture the judiciary: “You have to cut your cloth based on how much cloth you have, and you have to make do with what you have.” 

Such inappropriate scolding by the line Cabinet minister  will not dispose of the demand for reform toward a more realistic system of funding, allocation and disbursement. The Government needs to show more openness to rethinking the approach of treating the judiciary as if it were a department like any other, when constitutionally it cannot be. 

 The Cabinet’s two Senior Counsel personages should more constructively examine proposals for change aimed at making all the courts more effective and efficient, and seen to be performing in that way, by the too long ill-served public.