One of the better parliamentarians of A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) is Mr. Basil Williams. He has always been realistic, reasonable, sensible and non-abrasive in his politics.
It was unfortunate that he was not elected as the PNCR’s presidential candidate, because he would have made a very good leader for both APNU and the PNCR.
In his Budget presentation last week, he raised an important issue which the government tried to rebut, but were not convincing in doing so. He made the point that we have achieved very little with respect to the foreign-funded justice reform project, of which it was said that some 1.5 billion dollars has so far been expended.
With that sort of money, one would have expected more significant improvements. By the time that project is completed it is likely that a few more billion dollars are going to be spent without any significant transformation of the judicial system.
There is no doubt that the physical environment of the judiciary has been improved. The courtrooms in the High Court were in a sorry state. There has been improvement. One no longer has to fear an attack of asthma because of dust inhalation in those courtrooms.
Many of the magistrates’ courts have also improved and others are undergoing renovation or are scheduled for repairs. It is very costly to maintain these courts and this is something that will eventually have to be addressed by creating a special fund for the judiciary into which fines and penalties levied should be paid so that the judiciary can be self- sustaining and not have to depend on government or international financing for improvement.
When it comes to international funding, there has been little progress in terms of the main problem of the judiciary: the backlog of cases.
These internationally-funded programmes are failures. A few years ago, the government promised that Linden would make a giant LEAP forward as a result of a two-billion-dollar injection of funds. The two billion has already been disbursed, a significant portion of which would have gone into paying foreign and local consultants. Linden has not made a great leap forward. The EU-funded LEAP and LEAF had not transformed Linden as promised.
The same fate will befall the IDB-funded judicial reform project. It is time that the government dumps this project and dumps it quickly. It has not made an appreciable difference to the functioning of the system of justice. True, the courtrooms now look like proper courtrooms, but the judicial system is still clogged up.
What is needed is the faster movement of cases. This can only happen if two things are done.
The first of these is to make mediation compulsory in civil matters. The lawyers, however, are not going to support this, because they will feel that if mediation is compulsory it will eat into their legal fees. But a more efficient system will allow for society to become even more litigious, and therefore result in more cases, thus more fees for the lawyers.
Right now there are thousands of persons who have problems with other persons, but who are reluctant to take these disputes to court because of the time it takes for a case to be heard and resolved. However, if mediation was made compulsory, the backlog of cases will be significantly reduced, since many disputes would be resolved before going to trial, and this will be good for the justice system.
The second solution is for ten temporary judges to be appointed from the Commonwealth to hear rape and murder cases. A great number of the matters listed for hearing at every assizes relate to murder and rape, and the majority of these matters are never completed. They have to be thrown over to the next assizes. This results in persons being locked away in jail for years awaiting trial, simply because of the volume of cases which cannot be completed in each assizes.
The solution is simple. Recruit from the Commonwealth ten retired judges on contract to join the complement of judges to hear these cases. This will clear the backlog over a five-year period.
Instead, therefore, of foreign-funded monies going to pay consultants to tell us that we need to varnish the floors and docks of our courtrooms, let some of these millions be dedicated to recruiting judges.
Let some of this money also be used to recruit a draftsman who will quickly prepare the legislation to make mediation compulsory. The result will be faster court hearings and faster decisions.
Forget about the foreign-funded consultants. We need home-grown solutions.
If this is done immediately, it is certain to please Mr. Basil Williams, who is not convinced that the system is in good shape despite the large sums expended so far.