The price people pay for justice

THE office of the justice of the peace (JP) is by law a voluntary service, but several JPs have turned their duties into fully fledged businesses, charging as much as $40,000 to notarise documents.

A probe by the Jamaica Observer revealed that the practice is not uncommon and some JPs in the parishes of Kingston, St Andrew, St Catherine, and Manchester have set up business places where standardised price lists can be viewed.

Last week the Sunday Observer visited a popular plaza in Spanish Town, St Catherine, and observed an individual unknown to the JP paying $500 and receiving a signed recommendation letter on spot, stamped and sealed with the JP’s instruments of authority.

When the Sunday Observer inquired of the individual, he said he needed a letter for a job and the JP wrote it and charged $500. The letter stated that the JP knew the person for four years and that the individual keeps himself within the confines of the law and is respectful, responsible, and trustworthy.

The letter further stated that it was the JP’s learned opinion that the individual is a fit and suitable person to be afforded an opportunity to prove his worth in a new work environment as he seeks to increase his earning potential.

The recommendation concluded that the person had years of work experience and showed a keenness to succeed and should be positively considered in his application for employment as the JP felt the person was quite capable of making a positive contribution wherever he is placed.

The Spanish Town JP also had a list of other services which attracted a fee. Marriages cost $12,000; a will costs $40,000; business registration, $12,000; sale agreement, $20,000; and other services ranged between $4,000 to $6,000.

Sunday Observer sources in downtown Kingston confirmed that several JPs operate on King Street out of a bar, with a number of them willing to take payments and sign documents, especially if they do not know you.

“Passport form, driver’s licence, picture, recommendation, anything you want – $1,500. Dem nuh know you but you just go down there, find the JP in a car on King Street and reason wid him,” the source said.

Section 15 of the Justices of the Peace Act, 2018 states that the office of the justice of the peace is not one of emoluments, and the duty to carry out the functions of the office free of charge shall be deemed to be a requirement of the office.

The continued breach of duty has caused several custodes to express strong rebuke for the practice, labelling it as corrupt and rogue.

Reverend Jeffrey McKenzie, custos of St Catherine said while the reports of the JP using his instruments of office as a business venture is unfortunate, the information has to be relayed to the police who will do their investigations then get in touch with him.

“People will make complaints and you need to have evidence. Matters like those have to be reported to the police and then they will do their investigations,” he said.

Dr David Stair, custos of Hanover said he has not had any complaints of unscrupulous behaviour of his JPs. He, however, emphasised that the functions of a JP are voluntary but said that where individuals refuse to offer information or stand by it, justice cannot prevail.

“It is a voluntary thing, you’re not supposed to charge, but nobody is willing to come forward, stand up, and say, ‘Yes, this is happening.’ If someone is not willing to come forward there is very little that you can do,” he said.

Garfield Green, custos of Manchester said becoming a JP is a voluntary service to, among other roles, attest and authenticate documents and perform community-based activities, such as, visits to police lock-ups, hospitals, and children’s homes. The role also includes protecting the rights of citizens and ensuring that they receive justice at all times under Jamaican law.

“There are many committed justices of the peace who comply with the Act and ensure that their services are available to the populace, based on their knowledge of each individual, free of cost as is required. However, it is believed that there are some JPs within the parish who see it necessary to charge for their services. Charging for services in the office of justice of the peace is an offence,” Custos Green said.

He added that while he has reminded all JPs in Manchester to comply with the obligation to provide their services free of cost, he is calling on members of the public to desist from offering payments or complying with the request to make payments to any JP for their services.

“Any member of the public who has knowledge of fees being charged or is being asked to pay a fee may make a report to the office of the custos,” Custos Green said.

Custos of Kingston Steadman Fuller said it is a shame that some people are bent on joining the fraternity as a means of making a living, but warned that those operating rogue in Kingston will be punished once he is made aware of the untoward behaviour.

“I have had to deal with situations in Kingston where some of my JPs have been corrupt, engaging in activities that are not consistent in their commissioning. In those situations I usually call them in, and when I call them in it’s unlikely that they go back with their seal the Government gives them. Even the perception of getting into things which are not aligning with your training – I take strong objections to those behaviours,” Custos Fuller said.

In the past year, Custos Fuller said he has suspended four JPs by collecting their seal. In addition, he said two months ago he observed a man in St Andrew operating outside of his remit and with the assistance of the police, he collected the seal and other instruments of office, which were then sent to the St Andrew custos.

Custos Fuller explained that charging fees is a breach of duty, the beginning of corruption and sometimes misrepresentation and impersonation.

“When they are doing it for money, it means they will do anything for money…the justice of the peace fraternity is here to serve the nation and to serve it voluntarily. There are lots of areas in which we can make a difference as justices. But, in the process of making a living, a number of them are corrupting the judiciary system, and in your act of gaining a few dollars you might have given a criminal a new identity who is then able to escape justice. In your act of financial reward you might be making someone get a passport for which they do not actually deserve. You might be giving a driver a double identity so whenever the police stops him, he gives the police anyone he wants and he can never be tracked again. In fact, you are corrupting the system from the very foundation and sometimes it permeates to the society and causes serious problems. In addition to that, you are breaching a trust, you are breaching a commitment, you are breaching an oath that you have taken to serve Jamaica voluntarily and make Jamaica a better place for all of us,” Custos Fuller said.

Regarding whether a JP has to personally know an individual to sign a document, Custos Fuller said depending on the document, a JP may use a Government-issued identification of an individual as proof of identity and notarise on his behalf.

“If the person has a Government-given ID like a passport or driver’s licence and within your judgement that ID is genuine and represents the person, you can do a document for the person. But, that doesn’t happen for certain documentation. For example, a passport form requires that you know the person for at least two years. It doesn’t specify the level of knowing. You could meet someone two years ago and remember them and they come to sign a form. You couldn’t say you know them in terms of their habits and behaviour because you only met them once or twice, but the form doesn’t speak to that, it just says if you know them two years,” Custos Fuller reasoned.

Moreover, the Kingston custos further argued that wherever he hears of rogue practices he acts swiftly to bring an end to them.

“Some deliberately come in the fraternity with a motive, which is to maybe make a living by charging for the services. I must tell you, whenever I find or hear of any of them I am very swift in the way I deal with them. We can’t allow them to taint the entire image of the justice of the peace, which is doing a tremendous job in terms of helping to spread justice and peace across the island. We have very good JPs who work with police [in] mentorship and all areas of restorative justice and mediation. It’s a shame we have a very small minority who are prepared to taint it,” he said.

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