From time to time, there are public comments about delays in the justice system and accusations are made which reflect adversely on the time it takes to get a matter heard and completed.
Most recently, there has been criticism concerning the progress of a case brought by several police officers touching on issues of promotion. It is an important case for obvious reasons; but it is a high-profile case, and it has attracted attention.
We are satisfied that serious and diligent efforts are being made to ensure that as far as possible, delays in the Courts are minimised, while not sacrificing the quality of the process; but a recent statement by a High Court Judge in the course of delivery of a 17-page judgement in the police promotions case gives us a rare perspective on how necessary it is for criticism and accusations of delay to be balanced against the realities of ensuring that every party to an action is able to raise issues which are pertinent.
Sometimes, such points may be raised at, or even before, the start of hearing, or at other times while the substantive matter is under way. Yet, no responsible court will ignore legitimate issues properly raised in an ongoing case, and whether substantial or not, legal points raised in this way have to command the attention and decision of the Court.
The judge disclosed in the course of the judgment that in March of this year the substantive matter was set for hearing in April, but that an application brought by the Police Service Commission had frustrated that approach.
Let us be clear. The Courts and their judicial personnel are not beyond criticism. Every aspiring journalist in these parts is confronted in his first year of training with the unambiguous judicial declaration that the Courts may be criticised. The forthright statement in the Privy Council many years ago by Lord Atkin rings in their ears. In 1936, in a Trinidadian case, that famous jurist declared that “justice is not a cloistered virtue: she must be allowed to suffer the scrutiny and respectful even though outspoken comments of ordinary men”.
We have no doubt that journalists and judges alike share Lord Atkin’s view and yet we feel that there is need for greater public understanding of the entire process so that criticism of what might be called the justice system, if and when merited, may be constructive and have a basis in fact.
There is wide public interest in the timely disposal of all court matters as the Constitution declares and the instant case is no exception. Yet, any specific criticism about the pace of litigation and tardiness in the case at hand must be weighed against the fact that intervening applications can scuttle even the most carefully laid timetable set for timely trial.
We are fully committed to Lord Atkin’s view that the administration of justice is not a cloistered virtue. But we are equally conscious and wary of criticism of the Courts and our judges which is not constructed or supported on a proper assessment of the facts.
The judiciary is one of the cornerstones of our democratic traditions, and while our judges must never descend into the sphere of controversial comment, it is important in the public interest, that from time to time, and with the kind of restraint that is the hallmark of their high office; that unkind and unmerited criticism be answered.