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The role of the Public Defender in Jamaica should not be confused with that of the American office of the same name. In Jamaica, the Public Defender acts on behalf of persons against whom a wrongful act has been committed by a government agency or department. Importantly also, the Jamaican Public Defender does not go to court to address these wrongs.
Explaining to JIS News, Public Defender, Howard Hamilton, says, “the Public Defender’s Office in the United States (US) defends poor persons charged with serious criminal offences. Our office on the other hand, does not represent any complainant in any court or tribunal. We seek recourse for the person against whom it was proven that a wrongful act was committed at the hands of a government agency or department.”
In order to effectively carry out his mandate, the Public Defender has the legal power to examine any document belonging to any government authority.
Established in 1979 as the Office of the Parliamentary Ombudsman, to investigate and remedy complaints of bad administration by the Jamaican government, its agencies or departments, the name was changed to the Office of the Public Defender (OPD) on April 13, 2000, and given an additional responsibility.
“The original jurisdiction was extended to cover constitutional violations by the state as well,” says Mr. Hamilton, “therefore, the obligation of the office is to address both administrative/social as well as constitutional violations.”
The office is staffed by a 24-member team, which includes Deputy Public Defender, Noel Irvin; Director of Investigations, Madeline Webster and four investigators, who are responsible for clearing a yearly average of 700 cases.
In terms of recourse for those who have been wronged, Mr. Hamilton explains that this can take the form of monetary compensation or letters of apologies. He notes that this right for compensation is not exclusively that of Jamaican nationals. “Any national can file a case with the Public Defender, as long as the alleged wrong occurred on Jamaican soil,” says Mr. Hamilton.
He adds that there are no charges for services provided by his office. Examples of bad administration for which complaints can be made to the Public Defender include: delayed or protracted service, unfair/unjust treatment, unprofessional or improper service delivery, the use of faulty systems and disregard of operational rules.
How to make a complaint The OPD operates as an independent entity that ensures government transparency, responsibility and deeper democracy. Before a case is brought to the office, a complaint should first be made to the head of the alleged offending department. If nothing is done about that complaint, then the office may be contacted in writing. “You can either use post, e-mail or fax,” informs Corrine Johnson, Complaints Officer.
“The email address is publicdefender@mail.infochan.com while the mailing address is The Public Defender, 78 Harbour Street, P.O. Box 695 Kingston, Jamaica and the fax number is (876) 922-9830,” Mrs. Johnson details. She says that the individual or group does not have to physically visit the office to make the complaint.
The complainant’s name and address, the name of the alleged offending authority, the facts surrounding the complaint, and the date of the offence committed, should be included in the letter.
How investigations are pursued The office will in turn, acknowledge the complaint in writing and assigns an investigator to the case.
Whilst any person or group of persons can make a complaint, the OPD will first verify the grouse with the government agency or department against which the case is being pursued. This is why it is important to name the offending party, since the Public Defender will also write to the named department or person.
Upon receiving a letter from the Public Defender, the government agency or department and the specific person(s) named by the complainant if any, is then given the opportunity to present their side.
The investigator then makes a report on his findings to the Director of Investigations. This is then given to the Public Defender, who analyses the findings and makes his own report, a copy of which is then given to the complainant, the government agency or department and the person(s) named in the complaint.
If the investigations disclose that a crime may have been committed, then the Public Defender may direct the case to the Director of Public Prosecutions, who then decides if someone should be charged or taken to court.
In these instances, the Public Defender only comes back into the picture to settle monetary compensation. He does not go to prosecute on behalf of the complainant.
Mrs. Johnson points out that while it may take anywhere from one week to years for a complete investigation, she says that the average turnover rate is between three and six months.
Recommendations of the Public DefenderDepending on the nature of the case, the Public Defender may recommend either of the following: that the complaint be re-examined; that any faulty rules or laws, which gave rise to the complaint be changed; that some form of compensation be given, whether monetary or letter of apology; or that a person who has broken rules or behaved badly should be disciplined.
If it is deemed that the government authority has not taken sufficient steps regarding the recommendation(s), then the Public Defender may make a special report to Parliament.
Aside from the special report that may be deemed necessary in some cases, the Public Defender gives a yearly report to Parliament.