The CCJ debate - politics or access to justice?
A debate is now raging in the Senate on three bills that have already been passed in the House of Representatives to abolish the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) and to join the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ).
If passed in the Senate, it would mark the end of Jamaica's long association with the JCPC and, at the same time, the start of a new journey with the CCJ.
The birth of the CCJ, as a regional court, had its origin in a proposal in 1970 from the Organisation of Commonwealth Caribbean Bar Association and also from a proposal in 1970 from the Jamaican delegation at the Sixth Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference, held at the Sheraton Kingston Hotel, which was chaired by the then Prime Minister, Hugh Shearer.
The press briefing for the Heads of Government Conference dated April 15, 1970, stated that, "the conference discussed the idea of the establishment of a regional court of appeal. A general but not unanimous view was expressed that it was desirable ... ." So, this was a proposal obviously supported by the JLP government in 1970, and one wonders if it might not be a smart idea for the JLP of today to align itself more unreservedly with this idea.
It is clear that the debate in the Senate, so far, is along party lines, which, sometimes, has nothing to do with national interest. This is most unfortunate and maybe the larger debate should be a reform of the senate to have 'independent senators appointed'. It seems to me that the position of the PNP is that, as a country or as part of a region, we are mature enough to make these final legal decisions ourselves.
On the other hand, the JLP seems to be more suspicious of moving the final court from London to the Caribbean, but the main argument seems to be that the final decision to do so should be made by the people in a referendum, which is a vote similar to what we see in a national election.
There is nothing to suggest from the debate in both houses that there were any consultations at town halls or community meetings with the people in every nook and cranny of Jamaica. It therefore raises the question as to whether or not ordinary Jamaicans should be concerned about this political debate.
It is accepted that the JCPC is expensive, not easily accessible, and restrictive with regard to the cases that it accepts. That would not so much be the case with the CCJ. Furthermore, the CCJ has been in operation for some time now and, to best of my knowledge, there is no adverse criticism from anywhere that its decisions are lacking. So, if the Jamaican people are guaranteed a court that will be easier to access, accept a broader range of appeals than what the JCPC now accepts, come to Jamaica for sittings at very little costs to Jamaicans, have Jamaican judges sitting on its panel, and can deliver sound and just decisions, then the only question is whether this is better for Jamaica and the region as a whole. The answer is a resounding YES.
Perhaps, we should look at a compromise position. If the constitutional framework permits it, then there should be no referendum, unless it is done at the time of general elections. In addition, there should be a three-year delay for Jamaica to join the CCJ. Within that period, the people of Jamaica could learn much more about the court through deliberate public education programme so as to be in a position to readily access the CCJ.