Covid19 on trial

THERE are no windows in the courtrooms of the Hall of Justice.

Visitors, litigants, lawyers, juries, workers, students and members of the judiciary who frequent the building must first acquaint themselves with, then later become accustomed to, its artificially-lit rooms.

But most members of the public, luckily, do not have cause to go to court. This week, however, we have been afforded troubling glimpses into the building’s closed chambers.

The lawsuit brought by former chief magistrate Marcia Ayers-Caesar in relation to the circumstances surrounding her brief appointment to the bench in 2017, is currently before the court. Specific questions of fact and law are for the presiding judge to determine. But the concurrent impasse between Chief Justice Ivor Archie and at least two judges over the CJ's ban on in-person proceedings has shone an unsavoury light on the judiciary.

Ventilation of buildings is a factor in the fight against covid19, we are told. But, of course, the operations of the judiciary extend well beyond Knox Street, Port of Spain.

Indeed, as the hearing of the lawsuit brought against the CJ and the Judicial and Legal Service Commission this week demonstrated, the courts have the capacity – and have already embraced – virtual proceedings. This is not unique. The Caribbean Court of Justice heard the Guyana election case virtually.

Globally, a mixed bag of approaches has been used. Courts in the US and UK have at various points, subject to review, closed, restricted access, or changed schedules.

However, it is not accurate to describe the ban on in-person hearings as a lockdown. The courts remain open, simply adopting a virtual procedure which, by this stage, is hardly novel.

It is nonetheless troubling to read correspondence between judges in which some have taken it upon themselves to put the science surrounding covid19 on trial.

One judge argued there is a lot unknown about the virus. Another submitted there is enough room in the Hall of Justice for in-person trials to be done safely, once requisite protocols of physical distancing are observed. Courts are controlled spaces but the State’s record in this regard is shaky.

Consider the members of the Police Training Academy, who were made to stay at the St James Barracks and who, while there, contracted the virus. This was despite assurances that protocols would be observed. Even the police, who have to man the courts, have had scares.

At the same time, it is not correct for a chief justice to ride roughshod over the views of judges, though it is true he is empowered to take unilateral action when necessary. What is clearly not satisfactory is the intemperate tone of this very public litigation.

At the end of the day, it is the professionalism of all involved that is on trial.


"Covid19 on trial"

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