Joking with justice

Chief Justice Bryan Sykes has expressed dismay at what he described as an “adjournment culture” in the Supreme Court.

Addressing a ceremony where eight judges were appointed to act in the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court at King’s House yesterday, Sykes charged that while there has been some improvements in the operation of the Supreme Court in recent time there remains the long-standing problem of far dates for cases.

According to Sykes, the data show that this is directly linked to an unacceptable high number of adjournments.

“Of the three courts the parish courts, the Court of Appeal, and the Supreme Court I must confess, regrettably, that the Supreme Court has been least in terms of the performance there. That is borne out by the data,” said Justice Sykes.

“COVID notwithstanding, it [Supreme Court] is really not performing at the standard that is required,” added Sykes.

He argued that in the Supreme Court, particularly the criminal side, the court reporting unit is not as efficient as it could be, with a number of practices that need to be changed. But Justice Sykes was adamant that the data show this is not the major problem at that level.

“What [the data] is telling us is that there is still embedded an adjournment culture among lawyers, litigants, and, unfortunately, some of my judicial colleagues, and it is essential that we get out of that way of thinking.

“Adjournments must be granted in really exceptional circumstances because that is the only way that court systems become efficient and remain efficient,” he declared, as he argued that when matters are set to be heard at a particular time, every effort should be made to ensure that they are heard as scheduled.

“We still hear lawyers telling judges, ‘It is only the first trial date’, as if to say that, in and of itself, is a reason for an adjournment, even though the matter might have been in the court system for four years.

“That is the bugbear that we still have in the Supreme Court in particular,” said Chief Justice Sykes.

He pointed to former Chief Justice Lensley Wolfe and noted that Wolfe always underscored that lawyers cannot grant themselves adjournments, only judges can.

“And so, when the cases are not taken at the point where they should be taken and you have more cases coming in, eventually what you are going to have is trial dates four, five years down the road, and this becomes important when we do comparisons with some of the better courts in the world,” the said.

The chief justice noted that there have been major improvements in the Court of Appeal which will now have its full complement of 13 judges.

He pointed out that the Court of Appeal is now delivering 234 judgements for every 100 reserved, up from 189 to every 100 reserved.

“The Court of Appeal is on course to becoming one of the most productive courts of appeal within the region.

“And so it is expected that, certainly within the next 12 to 36 months, we will become the leading Court of Appeal within the region.”

Turning to the parish courts, Sykes said there is a structural problem that is being addressed as the number of judges has increased without the necessary support to ensure that the judgements, or the decisions, or the notes of evidence are prepared in a timely manner. But that is being addressed.

Despite this concern, Justice Sykes pointed out that the parish courts are now disposing of 88 per cent of the criminal matters that come before them within 24 months.

“That is an outstanding performance by any measure,” said Sykes, as he argued that the island’s parish courts are on course to becoming backlog-free.

Eight judges were yesterday appointed to serve in the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal for the Easter Term. Three each were appointed to act as judges of appeal and puisne judges, while two will act as masters-in-chambers.

Justice Marcia Dunbar-Green, who was appointed to act as judge of appeal for a second consecutive term, gave remarks on behalf of the appointees.

“My fellow colleagues and I are deeply touched and inspired by the words of congratulations and encouragement that we have heard. We are buoyed by the confidence that has been placed in us and commit an unswerving resolve to honour that trust,” she said.

Justice Dunbar-Green also stated that it was not lost on them that the appointments are being made at a time of unprecedented challenges.

“The operating systems of society are being changed by technologies such as machine learning and machine intelligence. At the same time, we are being brought to our knees by a pandemic that seems bent on mimicking the Black Death of the mid-14th century. It is in moments like this that our justice system must retain the public’s trust,” Justice Dunbar-Green said.

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