It has come to pass that I have done what I swore that I would not do, and it hasn’t killed me. I had said that I would not allow any month to pass without me uploading an entry into this site, and yet, September has gone and October is more than half done and it is only as I sit here invigilating an exam that I have found the time to share my thoughts of the last month with you.
What predominated my thoughts for September was the need for reform of the judicial system here in Jamaica. As I opened my computer this afternoon I saw the letter that I wrote to the Chief Justice protesting my summons to appear as a common juror for the third time. I have to tell you that I was very hostile when three policemen arrived at my home, and served me with the summons. I protested to them that I was not a peer of any of the persons to be tried during my stint, that I was too busy to do this and that it was the third time, that I have not chosen to work in the judicial system and that they are preventing me from living my life while forcing me to do the work for which others are being paid and that they should find some of the idlers in the society and foist this “opportunity” on them. In truth, I regressed into the temper tantrum that I thought that I had given up since starting this site a year ago.
As I write this though, my views have changed; not about the need for reform, but about my role in the process. You see, I turned up armed with my letter that protested being asked to serve for the third time, and also informing them that I am graduate student at UWI. You see, “students” and several other categories of persons are exempt from serving. My friend, Steven, has informed me that whether I know it or not, having turned up at all was probably more than the people at the Supreme Court expected since most people simply ignore the summons. Little did he know that he changed my life with that revelation since one week later, I ignored the summons to the Coroners’ Court, but I will tell you about that later.
I have to say that as I sat there in Courtroom 1 I was impressed by the lady conducting the orientation session. I found her to be friendly, empathetic and articulate in advancing her points. This should have given me a clue that my views about the process were changing since the people sitting near me were mostly either disinterested and reading rather than listening to her, or openly hostile (frowning, muttering, scowling) toward her while she spoke. Whereas I thought that she treated us with respect and a modicum of understanding even though some of her responses were not what we wished to hear – yes, even though some of us would not earn any livelihood while on jury duty, and she would get her salary as a judge even if no trials went on, we still had an obligation to the State; and yes, it is unfair that we would be fined JA$2,000.00 per day if we failed to show up but be paid JA$500.00 at some unspecified point in the future if we did – many of my colleagues castigated her verbally for the disrespect of the Courts in not offering them a meal during the three weeks that we were expected to be there, and they could not let it go that as self-employed people they were being inconvenienced seriously.
I thought her gutsy to stand there and stare down the hostile crowd in the room and I sat there enjoying the spectacle until I heard some of the questions raised during the Q&A session that she entertained. It boggles my mind how many times she had to address the issue of the challenges being faced by self-employed persons. I asked myself if it was simply a case of them not listening to each other – yes, the acoustics in the room were terrible – or if they felt that their cases were somehow different from the others that had been explicated before theirs. My fellow Jamaicans surprised and disappointed me there with their inability to pick up on the common themes in our various plights.
Beyond this, and much worse in my opinion, was the case where one lady did not understand that being told to serve during the period 15 September to 10 October meant that “she would have to come on the 16th of September and the 17th of September and the 18th of September…” She thought that the summons meant that she had to come on September 15 AND October 10 only.
This gave me pause, and showed me how far I had come. You see, after I stopped snickering, and muttered to my neighbour that we knew whom we wouldn’t be electing the Foreman of the jury, it occurred to me that my anger at being asked to serve really was because I did not regard myself as being a peer of the people who would appear before the court while I was there. On my last stint I was exposed to the corruption of some members of the Jamaican police when I witnessed the policeman who had failed to collect the evidence that would help to solve the murders of two persons and possibly bring to justice a man who engaged his colleagues in a shootout, and who had to be brought into the courtroom by a bench warrant for his arrest, whispering with the accused man in a corner in the Supreme Court. I was also a little unsettled when the judge apparently did not hear (all I know for sure is that he did nothing) when the same accused man informed the jury in his statement that he has six brothers outside the court… a threat if I ever heard one.
What occurred to me after my snickering subsided was that my resentment at being there was as a result of me thinking that the people were guilty, and would remain so until they were proven innocent. Of course this prejudiced view was unconscious for me, but now I wonder how true this is for others as well. This is an important point because it is conceivable that there is someone there who is genuinely innocent of the crime for which (s)he has been accused. It is also conceivable that this person may need the members of the jury to understand a subtle point in order to prove his or her innocence; but how possible would this be for someone who could not understand so simple a concept as attending court for a period of time rather than for only the two days that marked the end point of that period.
It seems to me that to leave major decisions about other people’s lives in the hands of people who have some sort of cognitive impairment is itself a crime. It’s frightening enough to think of the effects on the general political system of having people who can be swayed by receiving t-shirts, meals and small amounts of money vote en masse, and leave, for the next 10 years, the rest of us to suffer the consequences, but to have this happen when one faces 20 or 30 years in prison is truly nightmarish to contemplate. For a man or woman in prison there is no prospect of migrating to another country when things become unbearable.
To my mind, the idea of having a jury system is nice on paper, but the logistics of managing this in an efficient and transparent way is beyond Jamaica at the moment. I think that we ought to stop pretending that we have an efficient justice system here and embrace the arrangement where our judges do the judging of the case on their own. It is they who chose this life of managing our judicial system after all; I did not. Regardless of the quality of the service that I render to them, I cannot ask them to help me with my work once my three-week stint (if I’m lucky to not have a case go beyond the three weeks) is over and my desk has piled high.
My friend, Steven, has mentioned to me the idea of having professional jurors. I would agree with this if we were going to use our retired teachers and civil servants – persons now exempt by virtue of their professions – and train them and other persons with the time and inclination to do this as a job, in the rudiments of the law, in logic, Jamaican culture and in the use of language – both English and Patois.
Regardless of the system that we recommend to the politicians and policy-makers in Jamaica we need to ensure that justice prevails in Jamaica if we are to continue to regard ourselves as being a civilised nation. Having persons serve as important decision-makers who are either hostile about or indifferent to the system, or those who do not understand it at all, is not the best way of safeguarding our human and civil rights.