JIS News

Jamaica is in its 50th year of independence and activities have been planned locally and at diplomatic missions across the world to celebrate the country’s Golden Jubilee throughout the year.

In the close to 50 years since independence, the country has made several strides in a number of areas including the justice system.

The structure of the Jamaican justice system has evolved since the late 1950s and now comprises the Privy Council, the Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court, the Resident’s Magistrates Court and the Petty Sessions Court.

The Coroner’s Court is still presided over by the Resident Magistrate, but there’s no longer a Juvenile Court. This has been replaced by the Family Court, which deals not only with juveniles, but general family matters such as maintenance.

Two divisions of the Supreme Court were established after independence, the Revenue Court, in 1971, and the Gun Court, created in 1974. A third division, the Commercial Court, was added much later in February 2001.

The addition of the Revenue and Review/Constitutional Courts brought the number of divisions to six, including the civil and criminal divisions.

Attorney-at-law Beresford Hay was called to the Bar in 1958 but has been associated with the courts from 1953 when he worked as a trainee court reporter with The Gleaner, then as an employee with the court’s office in Half-Way Tree.

He tells JIS News that certain cases, which are now held behind closed doors, such as divorce cases were actually held in open court in those days.

“Juvenile Courts were always behind closed doors. You couldn’t publish what happened in juvenile courts but in those days ‘The Star’ which was perhaps the leading afternoon newspaper, Friday was divorce day and you can bet on a Saturday afternoon ‘The Star’ would be featuring a divorce case on its front page,” Mr. Hay states.

“Prior to Independence you didn’t have a Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), you had the Attorney General and he exercised jurisdiction both in civil and criminal matters, but in 1962 when we got Independence the office of the DPP was created,” he adds.

The Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions is set out in the Constitution and the DPP is appointed by the Governor-General on the advice of the Prime Minister, after consultation with the Leader of the Opposition.

“The general qualification for judges in those days was fairly similar to what they are today, five years for Resident Magistrates, 10 years or so for Supreme Court judges as far as I can recollect. The impression I get these days is that the judges nowadays start much younger than at Independence. Perhaps that is because of the structure of the legal profession in those days.  At Independence the legal profession was not fused. You had two different branches of the legal profession you had Solicitors and you had the Barristers,” Mr. Hay states.

He notes that prior to the fusing of the professions, only barristers could be appointed as high court judges.

Mr. Hay says another significant feature of the justice system during the early years of independence was the absence of women in the legal profession, and by extension the bench.

“As far as the Resident Magistrates courts were concerned you could count the number of women on the fingers of one hand,” the Attorney states.

This is in contrast to present day Jamaica where the legal profession comprises a number of female attorneys, many of whom have gone on to become judges of the Resident Magistrates and Supreme Courts.

Paula Llewellyn made history in 2008 when she became the first female Director of Public Prosecutions and Chief Justice Zaila McCalla is the first woman to be appointed head of the courts. She was appointed in 2007.

“As far as capital punishment is concerned, around the time of independence that was mandatory. If you were convicted of murder you were supposed to go to the gallows unless the Governor-General commuted the sentence. Occasionally there were cases of guilty, but insane which is a verdict of not guilty technically but what could happen in that case was that the accused that is found guilty could spend the rest of his days in the general penitentiary,” Mr. Hay states.

Capital punishment is still on the books, but there has been a suspension of hanging, since the last two convicted persons were hanged in February 1988, although there are calls for this penalty to be enforced. A 1992 amendment to the Offences Against the Person Act provided that only persons convicted of capital murder could be sentenced to death, so at that time, a conviction of capital murder meant an automatic death sentence. Then in 2005, the Offences Against the Person Act was further amended, paving the way for sentencing hearings, where, once the jury returns a guilty verdict, it is left up to the judge to decide whether the convicted person should be sentenced to death, or should spend the rest of his life in prison.

Another achievement is the establishment of the Legal Aid Council. An arm of the Ministry of Justice, the body was established by the Legal Aid Act, which was passed in 1997 and came into operation on May 1, 2000.

The Legal Aid Council administers and supervises legal aid across the island and also manages the Kingston and Montego Bay Legal Aid clinics.

“At around the time of independence, the system of legal aid was much more limited than it is now. Generally speaking there was a very limited system of legal aid in civil cases, perhaps non- existent but as far as criminal cases were concerned if you had a murder case and you were a poor prisoner so to speak then you could be assigned a lawyer to represent you. Nowadays it has been expanded quite considerably. You have a long list of counsel and in cases where people are in custody you have duty counsel,” Mr. Hay says.

In 2007, a comprehensive review of the Jamaican justice system was undertaken, and 160 recommendations were put forward for the modernisation of the system. The Ministry of Justice has embarked on a programme of Justice Reform, incorporating the recommendations of the Report. Among the latest development is greater use of technology in the courts, resulting in the introduction of real time court reporting in the Supreme Court.

Amendments to the Judicature Supreme Court and Judicature Appellate Jurisdiction Acts have resulted in the number of Supreme Court judges being increased to a maximum of 40, and a maximum of 12 in the Court of Appeal.

Another aspect of the reform efforts is the establishment of Justice Square in downtown Kingston. Justice Square represents the government’s drive to provide a sterile zone for the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

It will accommodate the expansion of these three facilities, and will also incorporate offices for the newly created Court Management Service (CMS). CMS will give the Chief Justice autonomy in the management of the courts.

The country’s justice system has undergone significant changes since pre-independence. The government has signalled its intention to build on these changes as it pushes ahead with the thrust to modernise and improve the system.


By Latonya Linton, JIS Reporter