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Frank Seepersad

Outspoken High Court Judge Frank Seepersad is set to possibly host seven virtual trials of cases in his docket, over the next month, despite a Judiciary practice direction advising the postponement of most cases until July.

Addressing the practice direction, issued by Chief Justice Ivor Archie on Tuesday, at the start of a virtual trial of a malicious prosecution case, yesterday, Seepersad stated that he would consider exercising his judicial discretion under it to deem cases, that were set for trial before it was introduced, fit for urgent hearing during the period.

“Every matter is urgent and important for the litigant whose life is affected by the particular matter and this court will be prepared to deem all its listed trials for the month of June as urgent provided that safety protocols are observed and the unanimous consent of all affected parties is obtained,” Seepersad said.

He noted that the practice direction, intended to protect its staff and the public during an ongoing upsurge in COVID-19 infections, was introduced without consultation.

“The court feels compelled to indicate that unrestricted access to justice is a fundamental pillar of a democratic society. The pandemic notwithstanding our responses must not be disproportionate,” Seepersad said. He suggested that with careful consideration, it is possible to provide justice to citizens without jeopardizing the health and safety of judicial stakeholders.

“When a measured analysis is engaged it is reasonable to conclude that a virtual trial, where every lawyer, court staff member and witness is safe at their respective remote locations and where the lawyers are prepared to proceed, poses absolutely no health threat,” Seepersad said.

While he noted that it was unlikely that the Judiciary staff members assigned to him would be required to go to court buildings, which are currently closed under the practice direction, Seepersad suggested that they could be safely facilitated through prudent management and heightened precautions.

Under the latest practice direction, all Summary and Supreme Courts cases were suspended unless they are deemed fit for urgent hearing by individual judicial officers. Domestic violence, custody, detention of cash matters, charge cases and those under Emergency Powers Regulations for the ongoing State of Emergency were automatically deemed urgent.

The practice direction is set to expire on June 30 unless extended.

Seepersad’s decision to proceed with cases with the consent of litigants over the next month comes after he was engaged in a war of words with Chief Justice Archie after similar directions, barring in-person hearings at Judiciary facilities in favour of virtual hearings, were brought in September, last year.

At the time, Seepersad proposed using private external facilities to host his virtual trials as the measures would have caused a backlog in cases before him and affect litigants. However, he was dissuaded by the Chief Justice, who did not directly forbid the move but strongly advised against it.

Archie claimed that the Judiciary had a responsibility to protect its staff and its customers.

“The Judiciary will not support any maverick disregard of this responsibility,” Archie had said in an official response to Seepersad at the time.

The Law Association weighed in on the issue and called for dialogue between stakeholders as it said that it saw merit in both points of view.

“We are satisfied that while there is a difference of opinion among members of the Judiciary as to the holding of in-person hearings at this point in time, the views expressed suggest they all have the interests of the public and the administration of justice at heart,” former Law Association president Senior Counsel Douglas Mendes said in correspondence to its members at the time.

Following the incident, the Judiciary moved to set up several Virtual Access Customer Centres (VACC) facilities across the country to allow witnesses to testify in virtual trials under oath, while judges and lawyers participate from their homes and offices.

Under the latest practice direction, these facilities may be used for urgent virtual hearings but approval is required.