Saturday 17 November, 2018

PM withdraws comment; to fully appoint Chief Justice ‘in short order’

File photo of Prime Minister Andrew Holness with Cabinet members.

File photo of Prime Minister Andrew Holness with Cabinet members.

Following two weeks of unrelenting pressure, including unprecedented action by judges that resulted in a shutdown of the court system on Monday, Prime Minister Andrew Holness used the cover of the Cabinet on Tuesday to 'withdraw' a comment he made at the time he appointed Byran Sykes to act as Chief Justice.

Holness also confirmed what has been reported in the media over the last two days - that he would appoint (fully) a Chief Justice “in short order.”

While the appointment of Justice Sykes to act in a clear vacancy was described by many as unconstitutional, it was the prime minister’s statement that “actions that bring results will determine the assumption of the role of chief justice,” that courted controversy as it implied that Justice Sykes was on probation. Some argued that it also represented meddling in the affairs of the judiciary, a breach of the principle of separation of powers.

In a statement yesterday, the Holness-led Cabinet said that if the utterance by the Prime Minister caused concern to the judicial arm, he “has no hesitation in unconditionally withdrawing the comment”.

But, the executive arm of government took issue with the approach taken by the judges to voice their disapproval at his comment when nearly 100 of them stayed off the bench on Monday.

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“The Government acknowledges the right and duty of the judges to zealously safeguard and preserve their judicial independence and the separation of powers,’ said the Cabinet statement.

“Notwithstanding, this must be done in such a way that does not undermine another arm of the State, negatively impact the economy or compromise the rule of law,” it added.

The statement issued by the Cabinet stressed that the Prime Minister did not intend to interfere with the independence of the judiciary. It said his statement was “taken out of context and used to create a non-existent threat to the independence of the judiciary”.

“There was never any intention on the part of the executive to 'supervise or direct' the judicial branch. The prime minister, in accordance with the constitution, recommended someone to perform the roles and functions of the chief justice. It was not intended to have the recommended person act indefinitely. It was always the intention of the Government, in short order, to appoint the chief justice,” said the Cabinet.

While the Government had largely ignored or dismissed the criticisms from the parliamentary opposition, civil society groups, academia and the Jamaican Bar Association among others, the administration appeared taken aback by the actions of the judges on Monday. That action sharply curtailed activities in the supreme, appellate and parish courts, a first in the history of the country. The reaction from the Government was almost immediate with the Cabinet statement coming a day later.

In the meantime, the Cabinet said it welcomed the judges' concerns about inefficiencies, deficiencies and delays in the justice system and agreed that a lot more needs to be done to ensure timely justice outcomes.

"We accept the observation of the judges that although the judicial branch of government is independent and should remain so, it is also accountable to the public. This statement reaffirms the very important point that all arms of government are accountable to the public," the statement said.