Judges against the judiciary’s position on the absence of a return to work policy


Chief Justice Ivor Archie –

The option of in-person hearings will take place “as soon as it is safe to do so”, Chief Justice Ivor Archie said.

But, at least two judges are not happy with this position. They want a return to a physical setting.

On Friday, with the new lifting of pandemic restrictions, the Prime Minister announced that all civil servants would return to work from Monday.

Outspoken judges, Justices Carol Gobin and Frank Seepersad, want the judiciary to review its hybrid policy.

The relaxation of the government’s covid19 policy will now allow public gatherings of no more than groups of 25 people who, once in a public space and a place where there is public interaction, must continue to wear masks.

After Dr Rowley’s announcement in Parliament, there was a flurry of email exchanges between the Chief Justice and the two justices.

Their conversation was copied to all members of the Court of Appeal, High Court, Magistrates’ Court and all Masters of Court.

In his response to Gobin, Archie thanked her for her concern, but said forensic policing regarding the maintenance of safe areas and access to buildings was under constant review and guided by the advice from the professional medical team of the judiciary.

“I have also continuously sought and received feedback from judges, court officers, staff and court users, so I am aware of the different viewpoints, which include those who prefer online hearings and the remote access, those who are very happy with hybrid audiences and want these to be the approach to take, and those who love you don’t want to see any change from the old way of doing things.

“We are also in regular contact with international justice systems which are mostly preparing for hybrid situations in the future,” Archie said.

He acknowledged that he was aware that some would like in-person hearings to resume and staff to be on duty every day. However, he said, “this has to be weighed against the fact that over the last six months we have had 1,148 staff in quarantine and as of this week we still have 54. in quarantine, 26 monitored positives and six deaths.

“Under these circumstances, we cannot be sure that bringing staff into shared spaces such as rather cramped judging bays would not make the situation worse.”

Archie said the judiciary has a responsibility to keep staff safe and ‘we also need to be aware of their challenges including public transport, child care and school-aged children still at home with no other means monitoring.

“I am aware that these are not issues that we face as judges, but I am very aware of the difficulties faced by many staff members,” he said.

In January, in response to questions about the reopening of the courts, the judiciary said in a statement to Newsday, “The courts sat and services were provided every day during the pandemic…Hence the concept of “openness” is debatable.”

He also said he would continue to provide services electronically and virtually.

The statement also expressed concern for the safety of court users, including those called to serve on juries.

“That then imposes a very high duty of care on the judiciary to ensure the safety of jurors. In fact, it is included in the marshal’s oath.

“To assemble a jury of nine to 18, which is the actual size of our juries, we must, by law, assemble in Port of Spain, a group of at least 108; in San Fernando, a pool of at least 36, and in Tobago, a pool of at least 20.

“Of these, we eventually group between nine and 18 in each jury and place them to sit for long hours next to each other and to eat together (for which you have to remove your mask) and to sitting together in a small room for long periods of time which are sometimes days.

“In the meantime, we let them go home every day, often traveling by public transport and meeting other people at home and in the surrounding area. They come back every day.

In his email to Gobin, on the issue of witnesses, Archie said he did not want to transfer the issues of enclosed spaces and recirculated air to courtrooms where there are client centers of virtual access.

“I don’t share your perceptions about the ‘integrity of the trial process’. Witnesses can unmask themselves in VACCs. Have you used them?” he asked Gobin.

He also assured that if a judge wanted unrestricted access to the hall of justice and its chambers, he would ask the clerk and administrator of the civil courts to allow them, but stressed that their staff would continue on his list of days. alternatives. Gobin says she intends to return to her apartments and has expressed hope that her staff will also be allowed.

Civil court judges are expected to move to the International Waterfront Center soon. being renovated to accommodate the Criminal Courts while the O’Meara Jury Courts were nearing completion.

Seepersad, in its response to the email exchange, said access to justice is a fundamental pillar of a democratic society “and that we, as officers of the judiciary, must be prepared to defend him”.

He said: “I find it difficult to understand how different views are assimilated when we as a body have not had a meeting for over two years.

“The public deserves open justice and in light of the new guidelines, I do not understand the position that has been communicated to staff.

“Many citizens are unemployed, but many court personnel, such as bailiffs, are paid but cannot carry out their professional duties from home.”

He also said fines, possibly in the millions, were not being collected, depriving the state of revenue, eroding the effectiveness of penalties and undermining the deterrent aspect of breaking the law.

He also expressed reservations about the integrity of the trial process in a virtual setting.

“Most importantly, our criminal justice system has almost come to a standstill, given the inability to conduct jury trials. How many criminal trials in the High Court have been completed since the onset of the pandemic? He asked.

Director of Public Prosecutions Roger Gaspard, SC, also expressed concern about the temporary restriction on jury trials in an affidavit in support of a stay of an Appeals Court ruling that now allows anyone accused of murder to apply for bail.

Gaspard raised the issue of court directives in the event of a covid19 pandemic issued by the Chief Justice.

Gaspard said that since March 2020, jury trials have been suspended, which would cause an unreasonable delay for a defendant to stand trial.

He said that when processing bail applications, prosecutors would not be able to reliably advance a firm trial date for any murder defendant wishing to have a jury trial.

“…I assert that it would be very difficult for a judicial officer to deny bail with existing practice directions,” Gaspard said.

The email exchange continued on Sunday, with Gobin saying she “will continue to fend for herself and rely only on the strength of her convictions.”

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