COURTS have sat and services have been delivered every day during the pandemic.
“The Judiciary has never closed except for a few days at various locations in order to allow for sanitisation… Courts have sat and services have been delivered every day. Hence the concept of ‘opening up’ is moot,” the Judiciary said in response to questions from Newsday.
Public health restrictions were rolled back late last year which saw the public sector, among others, returning to work.
Since the start of the pandemic in 2020, with rising cases, the Judiciary pivoted to a mainly virtual presence while leaving court buildings open for emergency use determined by pandemic rules set by the Chief Justice.
In response to Newsday’s questions, the Judiciary said it will also continue to deliver services electronically and virtually.
“The Judiciary had been preparing for ever-increasing virtual and electronic service delivery for some years as anyone following its development, the law and the rules of court and the speeches of the Chief Justice would have noticed.
“With the announcement of a worldwide pandemic, the timetabled projects were crashed and so it may appear to those not paying attention that virtual and electronic services came out of the blue and are meant to eventually disappear,” the Judiciary said on Wednesday.
In his address for the opening of the new law term in November 2021, CJ Ivor Archie admitted the pandemic forced the Judiciary to adapt to balance the dispensation of justice with the safety of all stakeholders.
He also said an element of virtual justice within the current system, will be the new norm.
The pivot to the virtual world also featured a change from a paper-based environment to a digital one with systems for the collection of the payment of fines and maintenance and introducing case management software.
“Virtual and electronic services are part of the Judiciary’s long ago initiated digital transformation plan and are also part of current the plans of many judiciaries worldwide,” the Judiciary said on Wednesday.
In November, Archie emphasised, “To be clear, the Judiciary is not really engaged in a process of digitisation which is converting data from analog to digital form.
“We are in a process of digitalisation which is leveraging digital enablement to transform our business model and see value-producing opportunities.”
On Wednesday, it said the reason for the continued use of virtual and electronic services was that “it improves service delivery.”
On the contentious issue of jury trials, which have been temporarily suspended because of pandemic restrictions, the Judiciary acknowledged such trials were “exceedingly conscious of the coercive nature of a jury summons.”
It went on to explain when someone is called to jury service, they must respond or they face a fine or imprisonment.
“That then places a very high duty of care on the Judiciary to keep jurors safe. As a matter of fact, it is included on the marshal’s oath.
“To empanel a jury of nine to 18 which are the actual sizes of our juries, we must, by law, gather in Port of Spain, a pool of at least 108; in San Fernando, a pool of at least 36, and in Tobago, a pool of at least 20.
“Of these, we eventually empanel between nine and 18 in each jury and place them to sit for extended hours next to each other and to eat together (for which one must remove one’s mask) and to sit together in a small room for extended periods which are sometimes days.
“In between we let them go home daily, often travelling by public transport and encountering other persons at home and about. They return daily.”
The Judiciary also asked to consider the plight of a potential juror with a co-morbidity or who were unvaccinated being made to pay a fine or faced with jail to be a part of the jury-trial process.
“We urge you to consider the legal duty of care placed on the Judiciary by this. We urge you to consider the full and cumulative effect of any one of these people contracting covid19 or even worse, dying from it.
“The Judiciary takes its responsibility seriously.”
In response to Newsday’s questions on the issue of virtual trials in 2020, the Judiciary said virtual trials were not new, nor were they implemented only for the pandemic.
“Legislation has, for some time, provided for a judge or judicial officer to hear a witness virtually when he deems necessary,” the Judiciary said then in response to questions from Newsday on the possibility of resuming jury trials at courthouses.
In its response, the Judiciary noted that legislative provisions have enabled and continue to enable the hearing of witnesses virtually in this time of public health crisis.
So far, judges have been able to deal with charge cases, bail applications, case management conferences, preliminary inquiries, magisterial trials and judge-alone trials using virtual technology.
One judge Newsday spoke with also pointed to the fact that the trial process included several moving parts and not only were potential jurors part of it but also the police, prison officers and the prisoners themselves.
Earlier this month, the police service admitted the overall vaccination rate in the service was 41 per cent.
In November, Commissioner of Prison Dennis Pulchan told Newsday, at the time, 20 per cent of inmates were vaccinated while some 35 per cent of his officers were fully vaccinated.
Those numbers in both arms of the protective service were expected to increase with the Prime Minister’s announcement of mandatory vaccination for the public service.
As for the Judiciary’s vaccination levels, it said as at January 14, it was 67 per cent fully vaccinated; four per cent partially vaccinated and 29 per cent of its staff, which includes judges, magistrates and court staff, were unvaccinated.
In a statement earlier in January, it said since August 2021, the Judiciary has been seeking information on the vaccination status of its staff.
‘This has been and will continue to be done in order to plan for and order its operations to ensure the safety of its staff, suppliers, and the public.
“Like any other organisation, the Judiciary awaits any definitive legal position on the issue of vaccination.”