Chief Justice Ivor Archie is in the news again but not in the way most citizens expect. In one of two scenarios and unfortunately so, the Chief Justice is at the center of a new dispute with some members of the bench over his decision to ban all in-house hearings before the courts.
While the Chief’s Justice’s decision may have hinged on continuing COVID-19 protocols to protect the Judiciary, Justices Frank Seepersad and Carol Gobin are taking offence with it.
In particular, they argue that the decision interferes with their independence and removes their discretion to determine if they can conduct safe in-person trials at a time when the efficiency of the system is being further eroded by the pandemic measures. The Justices are also calling on Chief Justice Archie to publicly disclose the reason behind the action and to reconsider it.
There are two sides to the argument. Some believe virtual cases can assist the judiciary in expediting minor matters in the safest way possible during this new normal. But others counter that there is still need for in-jury sessions for major cases, especially jury trials, because of the drawbacks with virtual cases.
In fact, Seepersad has complained that “virtual trials are taxing, hard on the eyes, the integrity of the evidence is questionable and they take longer to complete. It is also evident that with the exception of a handful of judge-alone trials, the criminal justice system has come to a grinding halt as jury trials have been effectively stopped since March.” The matter is of sufficient concern for the T&T Law Association to have met on it already, since it has serious ramifications for the administration of justice in T&T. The main concern is public safety now within the context of the system facing a major future caseload burden.
But it once again raises the relationship between the CJ and some of his colleagues. Justices Seepersad and Gobin have previously called out the CJ on decisions he made, so some quarters of society may be dismissive about this latest complaint given that the COVID-19 argument is valid.
However, hidden inside their complaint is the suggestion that the Chief Justice appears to have made a sweeping decision without consultation with those under him and may be one that serves more than one purpose.
The Chief Justice is currently before the courts in a matter brought against him by former chief magistrate Marcia Ayers-Caesar over her removal from office – an historic moment in T&T’s history.
The entire society is interested in this case, since it speaks to an issue still not completely aired out to the public’s satisfaction. Would it not then be a travesty if this latest decision had the effect of crippling the best possible access to the case?
It is a question raised by Justices Seepersad and Gobin and one this newspaper hopes the Chief Justice will clear up via a public statement while he finds a more workable approach instead of bickering over it privately.