Huge changes are on the way to the judicial system, the Prime Minister and the Attorney General revealed today in the House of Assembly.
Prime Minister Mia Mottley told lawmakers that the Attorney General is to seek funds to create more criminal courts and a new commercial law court when the Government’s Estimates of Revenue and Expenditure come before the House next week.
Five more judges are to be appointed to preside over the new courts, Attorney General Dale Marshall confirmed to the House.
And with the move to adopt the report of the House Standing Orders Committee, which has been overseeing the inner workings of the legislature, Mottley said parliamentarians are to be allowed to question the Attorney General and other officials on the functioning of the legal system, the demands on it and how it can be improved.
The Prime Minister said the new measure, in which ministers will be quizzed on how they intended to spend the money allocated to them, is intended to spur meaningful discussion in Parliament.
Mottley said: “In the elections, the BLP said that one of the things we have to do better is to manage our court system and the resolution of disputes. You cannot have people going to court and can’t get a decision from a court in three years, four years, five years. Similarly, in the criminal courts people are awaiting cases and jury trials.”
She said the lengthy delays also placed stress on the accused, witnesses and families.
The Attorney General sought to make a case for the new judicial appointments as he outlined the extent of the gridlock slowing the justice system here, a frequent target of criticism by the highest appeal court in the land, the Caribbean Court of Justice.
Marshall told the House: “In 2018, as of November 26, 246 divorce petitions were filed, 138 civil applications, and 243 indictable matters were brought before the court, and this does not include bankruptcy and other applications. Between 2011 and 2018, 3,347 divorces, some 15,000 civil cases and over 10,000 criminal cases came before the courts, and even with the best will in the world, the existing eight judges could not handle all those cases. And while 36 judgements were written in 2015, over 2,000 cases were filed in that year. So as of today, we are introducing a bill which will increase the number of judges from eight to 13.”
The Attorney General announced: “We will be creating a dedicated commercial court, which will deal with bankruptcy and insolvency, business documents and contracts, exploration of oil, banking services, operations of stock exchanges, matters relating to arbitration and intellectual property. We will also have a dedicated family court, because there are applications that drag on for years when the aim is to bring a quick end to arrangements between parties. We also intend to increase the number of permanent criminal courts, and the additional judges will allow us to have four dedicated criminal judges on a permanent basis.”
The Prime Minister added: “In respect of commercial matters, our businesses who have to put aside contingent funds and who therefore do not see the most efficacious and efficient use of capital because they have to put it one side in the event that seven years or six years or five years from now a decision is made that goes against them with respect to the resolution of a commercial matter.”
The Attorney General also announced that for the first time ever, positions in the judiciary will be advertised throughout the Commonwealth. He told Parliament: “For a long time the political class in Barbados has had the appointment of judges firmly in their hands. In the 1974 Constitutional amendment, (The Right Excellent) Errol Barrow brought in a Judicial Service Commission to bring the appointment of judges under the Prime Minister’s purview. The Barbados Labour Party objected then, but never changed it.
However, this administration is not afraid to change the way we do things, because we need to attract the highest caliber of individuals to the Bench. It was once felt only Government lawyers should be elevated to the Bench; before, private lawyers were not considered, but now, whether High Court or Court of Appeal, all judge positions will be advertised.”
Marshall said a judicial selection committee will be appointed to oversee the recruitment of judges. “It will consist of the Chief Justice as an ex-oficio member, a former Justice of the Caribbean Court of Justice, a former Chief Justice or Court of Appeal judge in Barbados, a member of civil society, a former judge, and a lawyer of more than ten years standing who is on the local Bar.
The committee will be responsible for advertising the post, interviewing and vetting individuals, and then making a final recommendation to the Prime Minister, who will then make the appointment,” he said.In the interim, Marshall said, there are to be several acting appointments until the posts were filled, since the selection process would take a long time, especially in cases where the successful candidate needed to relocate from a different jurisdiction. He also noted that in his discussions with his colleagues in the legal profession, “The change is welcomed. Some of them have even expressed an interest in applying for the posts,” he added.
Marshall said: “This represents a total transformation in how we deal with judges, and it augurs well for the bench’s credibility. I remain disappointed that this backlog continues because it is causing a hardship on people who are becoming frustrated with the judicial system. Cases represent a reservoir of assets locked up because of failure to decide. Once a decision is made, unless there is an appeal, those assets can be released. I believe this bill represents an opportunity for us to signal to the judiciary we will give them the manpower they need to make their work easier.”
In backing the parliamentary oversight committee report that calls for changes to the Estimates debate process, Mottley acknowledged that taxpayers might not necessarily agree with how all their money is being spent, but she said they should nonetheless be told.
She told the House: “When we asked the public to give us the opportunity to govern, I indicated then that it was our view that the public had the right to know how their funds were being expended.
“Would they agree on every cent that we did? Probably not, but what they must know for sure is how the Government they have elected has chosen to spend their money. And we have also agreed that there are other aspects of our governance of this country that must be laid.”
She described past debates as a “political soapbox” where the public was more often than not left in the dark.
“The time has come that, in the same way as the Minister of Finance, I go through a rigorous examination of what ministers put before me along with their public servants, that this Honourable Chamber deserves the same benefit, as do the people of Barbados.”