The decision on whether the Government of Jamaica will be allowed to implement a National Identification System is now resting with three of the country’s most senior jurists, who are expected to hand down a ruling in less than six months.
The challenge was brought by the People’s National Party (PNP) who are contending that the implementation of the system would be unconstitutional and as such, the government should not be allowed to proceed.
Chief among the PNP’s objections to the system is that it will infringe on the rights of Jamaicans. The case seems to have descended into a farce with what appeared to be open ridicule of the Attorney General, Marlene Malahoo-Forte by Chief Justice Bryan Sykes.
This is not surprising giving the antecedents to his appointment to the highest seat in the country’s judiciary.
It is well established that Prime Minister Andrew Holness had reservations and only made the appointment after significant public pressure was brought to bear by members of the legal profession, civil society and the PNP.
While there is no public declaration of Justice Sykes’ political persuasions, many in the court of public opinion, particularly JLP sympathizers, have formed their own view on that matter.
So it was really interesting to see the NIDS case play out in court, it being the first major decision of political consequence that has gone before the Chief Justice for consideration.
Of course, the ruling is being highly anticipated and all indications are that this case is a long way from being decided, regardless of how the court rules in this first instance.
If the judgement goes against the PNP, it is expected that they will seek to move to the highest decision making body, the United Kingdom Privy Council, in appeal. If the Supreme Court finds in favor of the PNP, the JLP will surely take a similar route and there may even be public castigation of Chief Justice Sykes in a very charged political atmosphere.
It is never a good sign for any country when the perception of political bias seeps into the judicial arm of the state. Just look at the scenario in the United States with the elevation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. At this point justice itself becomes tainted because even when decisions are made on purely legal bases, those with political motives will ascribe other attributes to that decision making process.
Jamaica cannot afford such a situation and the question is raised as to whether there is sufficient merit in the case brought by the PNP. Interestingly, Justice Sykes may have fanned the flames a bit himself, by asking publicly whether the money being used to implement NIDS would not have been better spent providing people with passports for free.
The judiciary should be primarily concerned with application of the rule of law and not making pronouncements on policy issues of the day, save and except where such policies appear to be egregious to the people of the nation.
So will NIDS be egregious to Jamaicans?
The question is highly debatable and the answers will depend on the side of the fence on which you sit. The programme is primarily concerned with the provision of a platform that will seek to ensure that all persons in Jamaica are properly accounted for resulting in a much better ordered society. Yes, there are concerns about how people’s personal information may be stored and accessed, concerns about the punitive measures that may be applied for non-compliance among other minor issues, but surely those matters could have been resolved at the parliamentary level.
The very “rights” that the PNP claims will be breached are the same rights that Jamaican people freely walk into the British High Commission and the United States Embassy daily and pay to turn over to those foreign states. The collection of biometric data is now a very common practice all over the world and those with nothing to hide, usually have nothing to fear.
Jamaica cannot afford to get back to the trajectory of spiraling murder rates and even more woeful arrest and conviction rates for serious crimes. The fact is that the police have a very difficult job and they need all the help they can get. Migratory criminals without proper domicile information create havoc and oftentimes the police do not know where to start their search.
NIDS will be of great assistance in the fight against serious crimes including murder, identity theft and human trafficking. The next five-plus months are eagerly anticipated because win or lose, there will be major consequences for both political parties, the justice system and the safety and security of the Jamaican nation.
By: Alphanso Gomez