Cynicism, distrust of the justice system
IT’S RATHER sad that, as is the seeming custom, it took such a long time before the matter involving the murder of 17-year-old Khajeel Mais was heard in court and there wasn’t a much more rigorous deliberation about the case. Undoubtedly, the outcome of the case, as someone said on Twitter earlier this week, “has dealt a devastating blow to the public’s perception of [and] faith in our justice system”.
Perception of confidence in the system is my interest, and not to weigh in on the discussions about what should have been the verdict. I am fully aware, one of my colleagues said, ‘law is about evidence, not truth’. One wonders, though, where is the sophisticated investigation that we have seen in more ‘high-profile’ cases?
The issue of trust and confidence is particularly important when you consider the level of trust there is in the justice system. The 2012 Caribbean Human Development Report, for example, found that based on an opinion survey examining public trust in 11 institutions, which was conducted in 2010 in Jamaica, the army was highly ranked as the most trusted, with a score of 65.9 out of 100, while an institution like the Supreme Court ranked fourth, with a score of 51.3. The police had a score of 32.6, which ranked them last.
Whenever a discussion about the effectiveness of the justice system comes up, we seem to race with our privileges in hand to a talk about the people as stakeholders in securing justice for the people. Rarely do we seem to talk about how the ‘system’ is complicit and has facilitated the normalisation of the level of distrust in the ‘system’ to actually work for the average man. Why are we so unwilling to talk about this?
What do we actually know about the status of the justice reform efforts by the government and its development partners? The report from the Jamaican Justice System Reform Task Force, which was headed by the late Barry Chevannes, was published/tabled in June 2007. The report found the following as it relates to trust and confidence (presented verbatim):
1. One of the main consequences of the problems of access and delay has been a decrease in public confidence in the justice system. It is clear that there is public distrust about the courts.
2. Confidence has also been eroded because of the frustration with proposed reforms that have not been fully implemented and due to the failure of successive governments to prioritise funding for justice reform. This experience has resulted in cynicism and distrust on the part of many stakeholders and some members of the public.
A number of recommendations were tabled around the critical need for necessary reforms that would engender ‘increased public confidence and trust that the justice system is accessible, fair and accountable’, which we seem to be in desperate need of. More specifically, it pointed to the need to improve accessibility so ‘the public perceives the trial court and the justice it delivers as accessible’; ensure ‘the public has trust and confidence that basic trial court functions are conducted expeditiously and fairly, and that court decisions have integrity’; and that ‘the public perceives the trial court as independent, not unduly influenced by other components of government, and accountable’.
Sadly, while there have been some improvements, we don’t seem to be much closer to fully implementing the recommendations contained in the 350page document. Justice is not a priority for the Government; it has not been beyond lip service. The piecemeal approach to improve the justice system makes that quite clear. Until this changes, the rest of the stakeholders needed to secure justice will shy away from playing their part.
The discussions around the conclusion of the ‘X6 murder trial’ go well beyond this individual case. If we pay close attention to what people are saying, without refuting with facts about how the law and justice system work, we would see that. People aren’t commenting because they feel they are lawyers and so equipped to speak with such authority; they are outraged because they feel hurt, and are dismayed. They are expressing their frustration because, yet again, the system seemed to have failed in securing justice for the average Jamaican. They are speaking out because they, someone in their family or someone they know, might have had similar experiences. They have read about such cases. Importantly, they know Khajeel Mais could have been them, their brother, friend, or co-worker. He could have been you; he could have been anyone of us.