Justice Frank Seepersad

At least one judicial officer has started using technology to deliver justice to citizens who have been advised to avoid courthouses during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

In a novel move in keeping with the Judiciary’s COVID-19 Emergency Directions, High Court Judge Frank Seepersad delivered a preliminary decision in an elder abuse case via video conferencing last Friday.

Seepersad and his support staff sat in a courtroom in the San Fernando High Court and communicated with attorneys for the two parties who were stationed at their offices in Tunapuna and Port-of-Spain.

In his judgement, Seepersad sought to encourage his colleagues and members of the legal profession to use such technology while the directions, which are currently scheduled to last until April 20, remain in place.

“Remote hearings may have to be utilised with a greater degree of frequency as the COVID-19 crisis unfolds and the Court must ensure that the rule of law is maintained and that citizens continue to have access to justice,” he said.

Contacted yesterday, attorney Dr Margaret Burgess, who represented the applicant in the habeas corpus lawsuit, said she was pleased with the process.

“I like the idea,” Burgess said, as she agreed such measures could be used for simple hearings such as case management even after the crisis is over.

Attorney Joseph George, who represented the respondent, also gave his nod of approval.

“It is definitely a good initiative and I would like to engage in it again,” George said.

He said it would be especially useful when litigants and attorneys are coming from remote locations and when judges are shifting between Port-of-Spain, San Fernando and Tobago.

George said he experienced some technical difficulties but it was due to the internet bandwidth at his office.

In the lawsuit, the sister of a 72-year-old retired prison officer, who cannot be named based on the nature of the case, was seeking to remove his daughter-in-law as his next of kin.

According to the court filings, which were obtained by Guardian Media, the man remains physically and mentally incapacitated since suffering two successive strokes between 2016 and 2018.

In the claim, the man’s sister alleged that his unemployed daughter-in-law, who remained living at his home after her husband passed away in 2018, was improperly using his $8,700 monthly income to maintain herself, her three children, and her mother.

She also claimed the woman fired a geriatric nurse hired by his relatives and also blocked their access to him.

In his judgement, Seepersad said the evidence suggested the woman’s alleged abuse of her power of attorney was true.

He noted that the man’s sister was less likely to be motivated by a desire to use his income to secure her financial welfare as she is in a secured financial position and is an elderly health care assistant in the United States.

He said after he ordered a mental health evaluation, the daughter-in-law intervened and stopped the process.

Seepersad noted that the man’s welfare was especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic as older persons are considered high risk.

“Given that the applicant herself is a financially secure older citizen, the court is of the view that she is in a better situation than the respondent to ensure that the intended patient is kept safe. It is highly probable that she too will be inclined to implement protocols to ensure her own safety,” Seepersad said.

Seepersad granted the man’s sister the power of attorney to make financial and medical decisions on his behalf, pending the determination of the substantive lawsuit.

Seepersad also restrained the daughter-in-law from interfering with the man’s removal from his home.

The lawsuit is tentatively scheduled to come up for hearing on June 15.