By Prior Beharry
A High Court judge is calling for a meeting between the Chief Justice and his judges to discuss the banning of “in person” hearings.
AZPNews.com has obtained a letter by Justice Frank Seepersad written to Chief Justice Ivor Archie on Friday.
The letter takes issue with a practice direction of the Chief Justice that took effect Wednesday and prohibited “in person” hearings except in domestic violence proceedings at court buildings.
Justice Seepersad said, “Chief Justice, as far as I’m aware there was no consultation with the judges prior to the issue of this practice direction and its predecessor, so as to gauge the impact of such a directive upon judge’s dockets and our ability to discharge our constitutional mandate.”
He said since June to now, he was able to complete only 11 trials compared to “normal circumstances” when on averaged he used to finish 12 trials per month.
Justice Seepersad added, “Accordingly, my turnover has now been reduced to 1/3 of my usual output, thankfully quite a few matters which were listed for trial were settled.
“Having liaised with other civil judges, I have realised that very few remote trials have been engaged.
“The 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 2020.
“Chief Justice, this situation is untenable and though the statistics may demonstrate that hundreds possibly thousands of virtual hearings have occurred, it would be disingenuous to assert that the system is working.”
The judge said the Industrial Court had been conducting “in person” trials “and I’m certain that safety protocols are observed.” He said within the last few weeks he has had several requests from lawyers for “in person” trials.
Justice Seepersad said, “It is noted that the practice direction issued imposes no restriction as to the location where a court should sit.
“It appears that the restriction as to ‘in-person’ hearings relates only to the ability to access court buildings.
“Consequently, I am of the view that there is no prohibition against my conducting an ‘in person’ trial at any other suitable location with the consent of the lawyers and litigants.”
Justice Seepersad said, “Until such time as court buildings are reopened, it is my intention to enquire as to whether the conference facilities at the Law Association building or conference rooms at the offices of private practitioners are available for use by me, to conduct ‘in person’ trials provided that the requisite consent, social distancing and safety protocols are established.”
He said between September 23 to the end of October he has scheduled five trials which could not proceed virtually.
Justice Seepersad said in two, the parties were unable to make the appropriate arrangements for a virtual hearing and in another, he needed to inspect a police station diary.
He said, “I therefore have every intention of engaging and completing these trials. Chief Justice, I take serious issue with the practice direction’s interference with my independence, case management decision making as well as the removal of my discretion to determine if I should conduct a safe ‘in person’ trial at this time.”
Justice Seepersad said, “In the circumstances, I wish to signal my intention to conduct the five trials referenced and to urge you to meet with the High Court judges so that our collective experiences could be shared and a safe and efficient way forward can be fashioned.”
The letter was copied to judges, the Law Association of Trinidad and Tobago and the Assembly of Southern Lawyers.