Most of us do not ever venture into a Court unless we are a part of the Justice System in Barbados – maybe a lawyer, police officer or probation officer.
While efforts have been made to upgrade the Courts they are essentially functioning under the same physical constraints as they have been for decades.
One still approaches the Court to find people sitting on benches or standing outside the Court until they are ushered in. Some benches now have back rests but some still do not. Perhaps the Courts are intended to be an unwelcoming place because the intention is to make one uncomfortable with the visit.
Who is likely to be there
(I sometimes think however that our infrastructure reflects who we expect to use it, and thus the stark contrast between the van stand and the international airport – but that is merely a random thought. )
The Magistrate’s Court has both a civil jurisdiction of no more than $10,000.00 with some exceptions such as wrongful dismissal and a criminal jurisdiction, thereby seeking to address many of the small but not unimportant issues plaguing the society.
Individuals are often seen at their most desperate and their most vulnerable. Some manage to catch a glimpse of what it is like for those whose existence in our society are predetermined to be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
For every charge or grievance there is a societal issue which has lead to the appearance before the Court. And arguably the appearance marks a failure of the society to deal with that set of circumstances adequately.
The underlying social issues
Assaults might stem from relationships within the community which have soured whether they be relationships between spouses or between friends.
Disputes might occur over maintenance because parents do not understand their parenting role or their understanding might be clouded by anger over the failure of the relationship.
A debt in the past which would have been forgiven between friends becomes a matter for the Court because friends consider themselves wronged somewhere along the line in the friendship – maybe a falling out over a woman.
Then there is the passing parade of those involved in minor criminal activity. Many of them young men under 25 years of age – the future of Barbados. Magistrates offer words of warning, words of reason with the certain knowledge that quite often those who appear before them will appear once again, older, with more serious crimes.
Underpinning all of this is that many of our Citizens have mental problems which just like physical problems will get worse if not treated.
All of these matters come before the Magistrate who over time comes to recognise the human emotions layered beneath the cold bedrock of the law.
Can the Court adequately address these underlying problems?
The Magistrate’s Court is a good barometer if we wish to examine the struggles of ordinary people. It is clear that some individuals need help. Probation officers are on hand, recourse is made to investigations and reports on the family as well as reports to inform sentencing. There are some rehabilitation and counselling programmes which are available, some run by government and some which are private.
Relatively new tools have been introduced such as the Domestic Violence (Protection Orders) Act Cap. 130A and the Penal System Reform Act Cap. 139 which give the Magistrate more and better options in dealing with those who appear before him.
And yet we have not done enough.
What is to become of the individuals in now forced relationships who have the responsibility of raising children when they have not themselves come to terms with their own problems?
What is to become of the hundreds of boys and young men who appear before the Court on a monthly basis?
Should community disputes however small require the engagement of the full armament of the judicial system?
It is now normal for there to be a public outcry fuelled by social media when there is some tragic event. But the truth is we do not pay very much attention when the symptoms first appear either as individuals or as a society.
Seeking new solutions
For those who agree that more should be done and that there should be more effective solutions, it will be a daunting task to recalibrate the thinking of the majority to the view that those who appear before the Courts could benefit from earlier interventions and evaluation, monitoring and support after trial.
Since we are no longer our brother’s keeper – let it be said too that weightier interventions and more effective programmes would make the society better for us all.