News from the Correctional Services chief, Stephen Pokanis that the prison at Baisu, near Mount Hagen, is overcrowded because of the number of people awaiting trial is disturbing for a number of reasons.
First, because section 37(14) of the Constitution suggests that a person committed for trial in the National Court should have his or her trial commenced within four months of when they are committed for trial:
In the event that the trial of a person is not commenced within four months of the date on which he was committed for trial, a detailed report concerning the case shall be made by the Chief Justice to the Minister responsible for the National Legal Administration.
If the Chief Justice obeyed that requirement then he would probably not have time for anything other than preparing those reports and the Attorney General would have little for for anything other than reading those reports.
Secondly, when the current Chief Justice was sworn in ten years ago, in 2008, there were about 20 judges. There are now around 40 judges. (One judge for each Maserati in the country!) Ten years later, despite doubling the number of judges, the backlogs remain. Recently, the Chief Justice has said he wants as many as 80 judges and that, on the basis of number of citizens to the number of judges, PNG should have as many as 160 judges.
Thirdly, the ten year term of the Chief Justice expires soon and it appears he is seeking re-appointment and the NEC will soon decide who should be Chief Justice for the next ten years. The current Chief Justice has had ten years and has doubled the number of judges but a backlog of criminal cases remains. If the current Chief Justice is re-appointed, will it be more of the same: more judges and more backlogs? Or will the NEC appoint a new Chief Justice who can and will get rid of the backlogs?
Fourthly, the problem is that it is difficult for anyone other than the Chief Justice to do anything about this situation. If the government suggests what should be done then the response from the judges will be to respect the independence of the judiciary. Indeed, if anyone goes too far in criticising the Chief Justice or telling him what to do then they risk being charged with contempt of court.
So Act Now! does no more than ask questions:
- Why do the backlogs continue?
- What is being done about those backlogs?
- Will the Constitution be obeyed in relation to people held on remand?
- If so, when?