Is justice delayed for children?
ON NOVEMBER 23, 2016, Amnesty International released a report titled ‘Waiting in Vain: Unlawful Police Killings and Relatives’ Long Struggle for Justice’. At the press conference, the honourable minister of justice reportedly said, “We admit that there are significant delays in the delivery of justice, especially in the courts, and it is a matter which we are working on to see how we can reduce the excessive delays in the system.” He went on to also say, “... [T]he problem is the slow process in the courts that is making a mockery of the delivery of justice in Jamaica.”
While the comment was made in relation to the pace at which victims of extrajudicial killings are able to receive compensation, those quotations could be used to describe the proceedings in many other areas within the courts in Jamaica.
Without pointing fingers or casting blame on any one entity, the fact is that it is extremely difficult to get reasonably early hearing dates in any court, even in cases which cry out for urgent action to be taken. In the Supreme Court, it is not unusual to wait for an entire day for the registrar to identify a judge to hear an application for an injunction. In the Resident Magistrate’s Court, a trial date in an action for recovery of possession may be nine months to one year from the date the matter first went to court (while the tenant who neglects to pay rent remains in possession of the property). In the Family Court, even applications under the Domestic Violence Act are scheduled for hearing more than one month from the date the information is laid before the court.
In the case of children who are suspected of being abused, the Child Care and Protection Act (the act) should provide an expedited process “to promote the best interests, safety and well-being of children”. Under that act, the mandate of the Office of the Children’s Registry, which it establishes is stated on its website to be to “... receive reports of children who have been, are being or are likely to be abandoned, neglected, physically or sexually ill-treated, or are otherwise in need of care and protection. After receiving these reports, the Children’s Registry records, assesses and then refers the reports to the Child Development Agency (CDA) and the Office of the Children’s Advocate (OCA) for their investigation and action.”
Based on the provisions of the act, a child’s best interests may be secured if we ensure that:
1. All persons are aware of their obligations under Section 6 of the act to make a report to the Children’s Registry if they have information which causes them to suspect that a child has been, is being or is likely to be abandoned, neglected or physically or sexually illtreated, or is otherwise in need of care and protection.
2. The provisions of Section 13 are applied, in that an “authorised person”, such as a probation, after-care or children’s officer, brings a child in need of care before the children’s court promptly.
3. In keeping with Section 4 of the act, in any proceedings when a child is brought before the court, the judge quickly assesses whether a child requires legal representation so that the Children’s Advocate or a legal aid representative can be appointed to protect the interests of that child.
We have said all the right words, but the fact is that health-care professionals and attorneys often complain about the slow pace of investigations that could lead to court action being undertaken to protect the welfare of our children. There is legitimate concern that investigations into allegations of child abuse, neglect or abandonment are often delayed due to resource and other constraints while children are forced to remain in the care of the alleged abuser and exposed to the potential for further abuse.
The case of young Ellie Butler, about which I wrote on June 27, 2016 in an article titled ‘Lessons from Ellie”, should serve as a constant reminder that it is always best to act promptly in cases of suspected abuse of children.
I welcome your feedback as to your experiences in interactions with state agencies, such as the Office of the Children’s Registry, Office of the Children’s Advocate, and Child Development Agency, in relation to efforts to protect the interests of children. Do they act promptly enough and, if not, what are the reasons for delays?