The Judiciary has amended its policy during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to allow for in-person hearings in limited circumstances.
The change, which comes amid criticism over the Judiciary’s almost sole reliance on virtual hearings since the pandemic started, was contained in Practice Directions issued by Chief Justice Ivor Archie on Sunday.
While in-person hearings were previously only permitted for domestic violence cases, under the new Practice Direction, they will be permitted where witnesses have to tender documents into evidence, where identification is a material issue in the case and when witnesses are unable to appear electronically or from one of the Judiciary’s Virtual Access Customer Centres.
“Viva voce evidence may only be taken in person at a court building in exceptional circumstances where, in balancing the interests of justice and the health and safety of all concerned, the court deems it absolutely necessary to require the physical presence of the witness,” the document stated.
It noted that such hearings must be pre-scheduled and cleared with the Supreme Court Registrar or senior Judiciary staff assigned to other judicial buildings to ensure that proper health and safety protocols are observed. However, requests must be made at least three working days before the intended hearing.
“The need for the presence of any member of staff in the court building for an in-person viva voce hearing will be determined by the Registrar of the Supreme Court jointly with the Court Managers and in the case of a Summary Court, jointly by the Magistracy Registrar and Clerk of the Court and the Court Managers,” the document said.
It also noted that witnesses must adhere to the Judiciary’s health and safety protocols, including social distancing and wearing masks, including when giving evidence. However, a judicial officer may request that a witness remove their mask for part or all of their testimony.
Under the directions, all court filings are still required to be done electronically.
It also stated that all fixed penalty traffic tickets issued on or before November 30 may be paid between December and February, next year. In terms of traffic tickets issued before May 26, it noted legislation had been passed allowing those to be settled by 50 per cent payment within six months of that date.
“The collection of these payments by the Judiciary are hereby suspended until November 25, 2020, in accordance with any extension by law,” it stated.
The development in terms of in-person hearings comes days after outspoken High Court Judge Frank Seepersad was forced to postpone a virtual trial due to internet connectivity issues last week.
Ironically, the incident came weeks after Seepersad openly criticised the Judiciary’s over-reliance on virtual trials during the ongoing pandemic.
In a letter to Archie recently, Seepersad had said the reliance on virtual trials has negatively impacted his work, as he was only able to complete 11 trials between June and October as opposed to 12 per month before the pandemic. He also said while virtual trials were useful, they were far from ideal for all legal hearings.
Responding to a proposal made by Seepersad to host in-person hearings, Archie did not directly forbid the move but strongly advised against it.
The reliance on virtual hearings has also affected criminal cases, with the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) calling for in-person hearings in some cases.
The Judiciary has established locations for witnesses to testify virtually under oath but questions have been raised in at least one pending judge-alone trial about the lack of a legislative framework for such remote evidence in criminal cases.