Leading Article: An ancient court proves its worth

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IT MAY seem anachronistic that seven Law Lords sitting in London can decide whether two men should be executed in Jamaica. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council is certainly ancient. Founded at the time of the Norman Conquest, it was, at the height of the British Empire, the most powerful appeal court in the world. The committee is a vestige of colonialism, retaining jurisdiction in 16 countries that achieved independence decades ago. Many other Commonwealth nations recognise its decisions.

However, on death row in jails from Kingston to Singapore, yesterday's decision will be unequivocally welcomed, despite its imperial overtones. It promises to save the lives not just of the two Jamaicans but of hundreds of other convicts within the Commonwealth. A few may even echo the Book of Common Prayer and 'pray for the Queen and all who are set in authority under her'.

As a final court of appeal for small countries, the Privy Council's judicial committee is imperfect. London is far away, particularly for poor people denied legal aid in pursuit of their last hope. Yet distance strengthens objectivity and reduces the risk of corruption and intimidation, even if too often poverty and ignorance prevents those entitled to appeal from exercising their rights.

The value of a court lies in the quality of its justice. Yesterday, the Privy Council proved its worth. Its ban on executing prisoners who have waited more than five years for execution is a turning point. The effect will be felt immediately in other Commonwealth countries. Furthermore, the judgment will provide a powerful counter to the increasing implementation of the death penalty in United States, where capital punishment is now legal in 36 states.

There is a cousinage between the American and British judicial systems. US judgments are mentioned in British courts and vice versa. The arguments used by the Law Lords could easily be transferred. The judicial committee condemned excessive delays in executions as inhuman, degrading and torture. That wording will be highlighted by those who campaign against capital punishment. The Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits 'cruel and unusual punishment' of prisoners. Used to improve prison health care, it may be further employed against executions.

The death sentence has been abolished in only 50 countries. The Privy Council may be an anachronistic, colonial institution, but its landmark judgment will bolster efforts to ban a practice that should have no place in the modern world.