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Raffique Shah


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Rotten apples tainting judiciary

November 06, 2005
By Raffique Shah

THERE was a time many years ago when I had implicit faith in the judiciary of this country. Looking back at it now, I realise that such confidence might have been misplaced, in the sense that while, generally, those who sat on the Bench dispensed justice impartially, there were also many rogue magistrates and other judicial officers of questionable integrity. Bear in mind here I am referring to the period when this country was blessed with judges of stature, men like Hugh Wooding (later chief justice), Noor Hassanali, Garvin Scott, Evans Rees and Clement Phillips, to name a few. In the magistracy, too, someone like Winzey Bruno stood out as a no-nonsense, yet fair and benevolent magistrate.

Years later, post-1970, then chief justice Isaac Hyatali used a famous remark in commenting on the stature of persons being appointed to the Bench. The judicature, he asserted, was being reduced to "watered down brandy", or words to that effect. It was during the events of 1970 when my military colleagues and I faced the courts on numerous counts (two of which carried the death penalty-treason and mutiny) that I first reflected on the justice system. That came about not so much because of my own circumstance (and those of my 80-odd colleagues), but because of our inter-action with ordinary prisoners. Mostly, these were poor people who could not afford top-dollar attorneys, and although they were criminals of one degree or another (here I mean from people who made simple mistakes in their lives to psychopaths who were comfortable on Death Row), they would often vent their frustration with "the system".

And with good reason, too. Point is in instances when people were appointed to senior positions in the administration of justice, they were also mentally elevated to a higher "class". So a person of ordinary means prosecuted by the State and appearing before magistrates on a trivial matters were more likely to be treated differently to those of standing in the society who were on a more serious charges. Unwittingly, some judicial officers tended to be influenced by the "class" of the accused. Most judges, though, could not give a damn about what the status of the convicted person was. When senior magistrate Patrick Jagassar was convicted of taking a bribe, the judge who sentenced him to seven years imprisonment was as severe in his verbal condemnation of a magistrate bringing the Bench into disrepute.

Around that time there was an infamous case of a poor mother who had shoplifted to feed her children, and who was jailed for that dastardly "crime". In contrast, many a be-jacketed "smart man" would come before the court on fraud or other serious crimes, and if convicted, were made to pay relatively small fines or serve short jail sentences. This disparity in treatment extended to the prisons where those of the right skin-colour or class were accommodated in "the infirmary", an open "dorm" that was less-of-a-jail than nine-by-six cells.

Today, this gap in dispensing justice appears to be widening, much like the rich-poor gap in the wider society. And worse, it is adding fuel to the crime-fire. In fact, the perception by many is that the justice system, starting with the police making arrests, has been tainted by many extraneous factors. The convoluted system involves judicial officers of a certain mindset who may think they are doing nothing wrong, and attorneys who literally feast on jurors and witnesses who are all but plastered with "for sale" signs on their foreheads. How often have we seen witnesses, including police officers, conveniently "forget" crucial evidence they had earlier given? Are we not getting sick watching bandits and murderers walk out of courts grinning as witnesses either fail to show (some end up dead), or when they do, decide not to give evidence? Is this justice?

I am not casting aspersions at our judges, magistrates, and State and defence attorneys: mercifully for us, most of them refuse to bow to the almighty dollar, to the status of the accused, to class and race prejudices. They remain true pillars of a system that can, and indeed, ought to work and serve all the people all the time, equitably, I need add. But just as there are rotten apples in the Police Service, there are also rotten judicial officers.

When we look at the state of crime in the country, it is easy for us to point accusing fingers at the police, at criminals, at politicians. But do we ever consider the perception that some judicial officials are also part of the crime-spiral? That they are guilty of grave miscarriages of justice that have dire consequences? Justice, after all, is not necessarily a cloistered virtue. It can be, and too often is, a sword wielded by supposedly respectable men and women in the law fraternity, to the detriment of us all. I rest my case.