LAUREL WILLIAMS and JADA LOUTOO
CHIEF Justice Ivor Archie has fired back at Justice Frank Seepersad – both publicly and privately – over his defiance of rules laid down by Archie banning in-person hearings.
Newsday reported on Monday that at least two judges, Justice Seepersad and Justice Carol Gobin, were opposed to the ban on in-person hearings with Seepersad going so far as to tell Archie he was willing to hold in-person hearings as part of his duties as a judge.
The CJ fired off a public response via a press release as well as a private letter to Justice Seepersad (
see story below). In the press release, Archie made it clear any judge who seeks to hold an in-person hearing in contravention of rules and procedures, does so at their own risk and there will be consequences to follow.
“By compelling people to physically attend upon you in a place in person, you assume a moral and legal responsibility to take all reasonable steps to safeguard their health and safety and to mitigate foreseeable risk,” Archie said in the release sent to the media on Monday.
Archie emphasised that the judiciary will not support any maverick disregard of that responsibility. Seepersad and Gobin recently wrote to the Chief Justice about their concerns with the banning of in-person hearings as part of a suite of changes in the Judiciary in the wake of the covid19 pandemic. In his press release on Monday, the CJ referred to Seepersad’s remarks as “the recent misguided missive of Seepersad J.”
“Anyone who undertakes doing so in any location not designated by the Chief Justice for that purpose does so at their own risk and the liability, both legal and moral is theirs alone,” Archie said.
“The judiciary also has a responsibility not to expose its employees to avoidable risk. Please note that judges are not the employers. It also follows from the foregoing that it would be highly irresponsible to send any of our staff to private premises over which we have no control.”
“I do not believe that I need to explain the judicial inappropriateness of a judge sitting in a private lawyer’s chambers to conduct court hearings in person. The ethical issue is trite,” Archie said.
“I recognise the stellar effort of judges in all divisions to continue to deliver justice to litigants virtually. Judiciaries across the entire world are contending with the restriction of in-person hearings. With our virtual capacity, we are fortunate as our judiciary is ahead of many others.”
Archie said the judiciary is arranging for staff to be split into definitive teams so that they will do so on specific days if they must come to the buildings. People, including judges who are not scheduled for the Supreme Court buildings on any given day, must not attempt to enter the building, Archie advised.
Such action, he said, will mitigate against cross-contamination and ensure that the whole Supreme Court would not be required to self-quarantine at any given time. The Law Association is expected to meet soon to discuss the issue.
At least two more judges responded on the issue yesterday. Justice Hayden St Clair-Douglas, in an e-mail to colleagues, noted Justice Seepersad’s concerns over the ban affecting output in terms of the hearing of cases.
St Clair-Douglas said he too longs for the day to return to normal duties but agreed that health and safety is paramount and as such, he has put his trust in the CJ “who is my boss,” confident that Archie avails himself of significantly greater quantities and better qualities of information regarding the coronavirus than he (St Clair-Douglas) has access to.
Justice Norton Jack also concurred with Justice St Clair-Douglas, telling colleagues: “I concur in every way with the position taken by my brother Mr Justice St. Clair-Douglas. I can add nothing to this very appropriate response.”
However, in reply to her “brother” judges, Justice Gobin said not only judges share the same health concerns of St Clair-Douglas but all citizens.
She maintained, “There is a significant difference between us and them.” She said judges were not more important to TT, entitling them to a higher degree of protection or isolation,” but the difference was that no other essential worker had the luxury of staying home because of covid19 while their salaries and perks are guaranteed.
“They cannot stay home until a boss sometime in the future, gives the all clear...They cannot protect themselves by abandoning their duties even if they consider themselves vulnerable by reason of age or health issues.
“The rest of the people are working within the guidelines set by the health officials so as to hold on to jobs, to feed children, to survive.When they are exposed, their workspaces are sanitised and they are expected to be back on the job, within a day. sometimes.They have no choice,” she said.
Gobin said as judges, they should be more concerned about whether they could hide behind a decision to “significantly lock down the justice system” without consultation or providing justification for it and “and whether we can in good conscience be comfortable to remain at home.. To avoid placing ourselves at risk, while we continue to receive our salaries, as people lose their jobs, face eviction and are deprived of the access to the courts that we should be providing.”
“I cannot do it. And, I have to say, most civil judges are working round-the-clock. Frank and I want to do our trials in a courtroom. We are not asking that any other judge who might be unwilling to expose himself or herself come out. We fear covid19 and the unknown as much as anyone. We simply want to do our duty without obstruction. This is what fighting this virus means for us,” she said.
Gobin also took issue with St Clair-Douglas’ view that the CJ was his “boss,” saying her boss is the law. “My boss is the law.
My supervisor if I have one is my oath of office to serve the administration of justice.”
She said while Archie, by virtue of his office, was entitled to make decisions on the day-to-day operations of the courts, when some interferred with a judge’s constitutional duties or judicial function, “then it is not just right.”
“It is imperative that we should as judges consider whether the head exceeds his authority,” she said.