In Charles Dickens’ novel Bleak House, significant mention is made of the fictional court case Jarndyce v Jarndyce. It surrounds a matter of inheritance that drags on for so long that when it is finally concluded, the inheritance that should have gone to families –– some departed and some forgotten –– has been consumed by legal fees.
There is perhaps nothing more frustrating than victims of adverse circumstances being made to suffer longer than they should. It is equally frustrating when that misery and prolonged anguish are as a result of institutional sloth, indifference and in several instances the ineptness and sleight of hand of those who betray the trust of sufferers.
The sloth in Barbados’ judicial processes has long since reached subterranean depths. Sadly, those in the system who are mainly responsible for this sorry state of affairs are seldom negatively affected by their transgressions. Of course, there are instances where some in the legal fraternity avail themselves of what is not theirs and occasionally, perhaps too infrequently, face their peers on the wrong side of the dock.
The recent lamentations of former Queen Elizabeth Hospital nurse Coral Wilkinson has once again brought to the fore a cancer that is festering in the halls of justice in Barbados. Miss Wilkinson suffered a back injury while on the job in April, 1981, and to date has not had her quest for compensation addressed. She has suffered through the administrations of Prime Ministers Tom Adams, Bernard St John, Errol Barrow, Erskine Sandiford, Owen Arthur, David Thompson and Freundel Stuart for the past 35 years, and still there has been no resolution to her case.
This is not a political dilemma. This is a social shame. Under what circumstances could any self-respecting public official offer a reason for a matter pertaining to the health and well-being of a citizen dragging on for more than three decades? In other words, Miss Wilkinson has been waiting for justice to be done in her case for about 12,775 days. The tenet of justice delayed is justice denied has surely become a monumental joke.
One would be optimistic if Miss Wilkinson’s case was the exception, but Barbados’ judicial process is fraught with examples of this cancer.
Take the case of retired police constable Hadley Thomas. Almost 27 years after sustaining a career-ending injury on the job, Mr Thomas is still waiting on compensation from the Government.
Mr Thomas now walks with the aid of crutches, following the October 10, 1989 incident at his Central Police Station worksite that resulted in a hairline fracture, thrombosis of the leg and damaged circulation. Specialists subsequently informed Mr Thomas that his was a permanent condition that would deteriorate overtime as he aged. They were right.
But his case reeks even worse than Miss Wilkinson. He was informed that Government had reached a decision with his legal representative(s) that begs certain questions. If an agreement has been reached, where is his compensation? Is it in still in Government’s coffers, where is shouldn’t be? Is it on the account of some attorney where it shouldn’t be? Is it still available to Mr Thomas?
The crux of the matter is that, similar to Miss Wilkinson, Mr Thomas continues to suffer.
Their stories are but the tip of a disgraceful iceberg that stretches even further than Government, the judiciary and some practitioners of the legal profession. There are horror stories from some Barbadians of faithfully paying insurance premiums over many years only to be met with frustration and procrastination when they seek compensation or assistance related to their personal loss. Complaints have often filtered into the public domain that settlement of claims take an inordinately lengthy time, frequently to the chagrin and further hardship of claimants.
When these infelicities are highlighted, reactions by those responsible or accused of being responsible relate more to excuses and shifting of blame rather than the course of finding a resolution. It is a malaise that runs throughout Barbadian society.
Then our political leaders go to official functions and make pretty perfunctory speeches about how great we are and our steadfast journey to First-World status by twenty-this or twenty-that. Or, our judicial leaders publicly throw tantrums when they are called to account for their professional stewardship.
There is a school of thought that this country has done well despite itself. But the extent of a festering sore under adhesive is only known when that cover is removed or when the spread of the ailment cannot be concealed further.
We would hope that the likes of Miss Wilkinson, Mr Thomas, et al. do not become metaphors for a socio-judicial circumstance that is condemned to being the norm. The evidence in recent times suggests that Jarndyce v Jarndyce is more Barbadian fact than Dickens fiction.