Chief Justice Ivor Archie says even when the COVID-19 restrictions on the courts are lifted virtual platforms will remain a permanent feature in the Judiciary’s operations.
Archie was speaking at the sod-turning ceremony in San Fernando for the long awaited magistrates court which will be renamed the San Fernando District Court.
He said they were depending on the science to guide them as to when the COVID-19 restrictions would be lifted to facilitate the resumption of physical operations.
However, Archie said the virtual platform was in train prior to COVID-19, but the pandemic opened an opportunity to advance the time table.
Archie told reporters, “We have been actually accommodating physical hearings as well but we have been encouraging virtual hearings so that we limit the foot traffic in the courts for obvious reasons because we have to sanitise in between hearings and we have to be guided by Minister of Health guidelines and social distancing and things like that so it is not we have shutdown but we have reduced the number of persons coming into court and where ever possible and where ever the interest of justice is not compromised we are dealing with matters by remote hearings.”
While the move to virtual platform has been very positive, he said one of the challenges has been remote jury trials.
He said, “It’s been very well received. Of course we still will have challenges with things like jury trials and we are now liaising with the legal profession to see how we can move those forward during the continuing period of restrictions for COVID so that we will not develop too much of a backlog.”
He said they are exploring the possibility of reducing the number of jurors.
Attorney General Fairs Al-Rawi, who was also at the function, said he has already drafted the law for a modified version of jury trials in consultation with the Chief Justice and other stakeholders.
Outlining the number of projects being undertaken within the Judiciary, Al-Rawi said by next month there will be over 125 new court rooms.
“So that is an epic expansion of the Judiciary from the Government’s perspective in funding that arrangement. What the Honourable Chief Justice has been able to do is to at the same time prepare the judiciary for all of those eventualities the technology, training the roll out and the Law Association has done its part as well because their practioneers are all quite enthused in the most part about this position,” said Al-Rawi.
He was satisfied that the 43 magistrates were sufficient to service all the courts.
“The difference is what were the magistrates doing, they were doing 146,000 cases a year. On December 23,2019, 8,5000 marijuana cases stopped going to the magistracy. On May 26, 2020 104,000 cases stopped going for motor vehicle and road traffic offences. When we abolished preliminary enquiries 26,000 cases stopped going to the magistracy leaving 8,500 cases for the same 43 magistrates but this time, virtual courts, rules of court, technology and new buildings. Understand what I just told you, you’re dropping the case load from 146,000 to 8,500.”
He said the new San Fernando court will be a state-of-the-art building.
Comprising of seven levels, the building is being constructed under the management of Nidco at the corner of Irving and Sutton Streets with phase one expected to be completed in four months at a cost of $80.5 million.
The entire project is expected to be completed before the end of next year.
This follows years of complaints over the infrastructure of the old magistrate court at Harris Street which is due to be demolished to make way for a new Supreme Court old magistrate.
For the last three years, the magistrates’ court has been operating on a shift system at the Supreme Court. In addition, he said south can look forward to the opening of the Princes Town Court, inclusive of a family court, next month and the family court in San Fernando at the former Sisters of Cluny Convent Building is expected to be completed next year.
The relocation of the civil and appeal courts to the Waterfront Towers are expected to take place at the end of August.
Expressing his gratitude to the legal profession for their cooperation, Archie said many of the attorneys have begun to reconfigure their chambers so that they can accommodate virtual hearings and were very excited about it.
Chairman of Nidco Herbert George said the contract for the first phase of the district court has been awarded to Gosine Developmental Construction Caribbean Ltd. He promised that the project will be delivered within time and within budget.