Noel Chambers case pushes chief justice into action

THE Jamaican Judiciary yesterday apologised for the treatment meted out to Noel Chambers, the 81-year-old mentally ill man who languished in jail for 40 years without a trial, and outlined steps being taken by Chief Justice Bryan Sykes to address shortcomings in the system.

A task force has been set up, with its report expected within 120 days, and all cases of mentally ill individuals in custody will be immediately up for review.

“We express our sincerest sympathies and apologise to his family, friends, community, and by extension every Jamaican. It is clear that many institutions, including the courts, failed in their duty to safeguard the right of Mr Chambers to life, liberty, and a fair trial within a reasonable time before a properly constituted and impartial court. Mr Chambers was victimised several times,” said a statement issued by the administrative arm of the courts.

The statement also noted that the information now available indicates that there was a “systemic failure” in established procedures that would have moved Chambers’ case through the system. “The failure to have him before the courts at regular intervals resulted in him being overlooked, which ended in his death. This is not to happen again,” it continued.

Chambers’ story was among those highlighted during a recent report by the Independent Commission of Investigation (INDECOM). The report generated substantial public outrage and prompted Chief Justice Brian Sykes to take action.

“The chief justice has established a mental health task force that is to look at the present law, practice, policies, and procedures relating to persons in custody with mental illness. The report of the task force is expected within the next 120 days. In the meantime, all the cases involving persons in custody with mental illness will be reviewed and appropriate decisions, within the law, will be made. The review will commence immediately. In this regard, the courts will be working closely with the Department of Corrections and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions,” said the statement.

Section 25D of the Criminal Justice (Administration) Act says there should be a monthly report made to the court on people found not fit to plead and are remanded in custody. The courts also have a responsibility to keep a log of these individuals. The INDECOM report highlighted gaps in the system.

“This systemic failure, and particularly that of the courts, highlights the need for a change of culture. On the part of the courts, this means that all judges must accept that the courts are responsible to manage all cases, civil or criminal, in a manner that they are disposed of within the 24-month time standard that has been established. We are not yet there, but significant work is being done to get to this standard,” said yesterday’s statement from the court’s administrative arm. It went on to note that the Chambers case had once again made clear the need for adequate record-keeping and information management.

“This is a priority area for the Judiciary and was included in the strategic plan as an area in need of improvement if we are to become one of the best Judiciaries in the world,” the release noted.

The point was also made that the courts needed adequate resources to be effective. It ended with Sykes’s call for judges at all levels of the courts to ensure that the rights of those who come before them are upheld, and within a reasonable time.

“This is the right of every litigant,” it said.

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