Chief Justice Ivor Archie

Chief Justice Ivor Archie has warned judges against hosting judicial hearings at external facilities, except for domestic violence hearings, as court locations remain closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Responding to a proposal made by outspoken High Court Judge Frank Seepersad in a letter sent to him late last week, Archie did not directly forbid the move but strongly advised against it.

Archie said: “I therefore ask all judges to kindly adhere to the most recent directions and guidelines and avoid unnecessarily exposing others and our staff (many of whom have to take public transport and come from households with vulnerable persons) to avoidable risk.”

Archie also suggested that if Seepersad or other judges still decided to go ahead with such hearings, they would be personally liable both morally and legally.

“The Judiciary will not support any maverick disregard of this responsibility,” Archie noted.

Archie also warned against the perception of possibly hosting hearings at the offices of litigants’ attorneys.

“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.

He also hailed the Judiciary’s rapid implementation of virtual hearings since the start of the pandemic in March and called upon judges to work together to ensure collective safety.

Archie also revealed that the Judiciary was currently working on a shift system for staff to facilitate emergency hearings at court locations.

“This virus is very serious and is not to be taken lightly. Several persons are continually working very hard to keep the Judiciary running and safe, and while from where you stand, some of you may have the luxury of only seeing it from its effect on you and your work, there are others, including me, who have to see it from all angles,” he said.

Guardian Media also understands that in addition to his correspondence to all judges, Archie personally wrote to Seepersad criticising him for his proposed action and his general method of raising topical issues for consideration. He also strongly suggested that Seepersad desists from engaging in the proposed conduct, which would still require the use of Judiciary resources.

In his letter, which was also obtained by Guardian Media, Seepersad said the reliance on virtual trials has had a negative impact on his work, as he was only able to complete 11 trials between June and this month 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.

“The virtual trials are taxing, hard on eyes, the integrity of the evidence is questionable and they take longer than expected,” Seepersad said.

Noting that the issue was also affecting the Criminal Division with the suspension of jury trials and low interest in optional judge-alone trials, Seepersad said statistics showing the use of thousands of virtual hearings would be misleading.

“The disposition rate over the period March to present must be well below average and would possibly belie any such contention. The citizens of this republic surely deserve better,” Seepersad said.

Seepersad noted that he had five upcoming trials that could not be facilitated virtually and his staff would not be required to go to proposed locations as they could connect virtually from home.

Guardian Media understands that after Seepersad’s email was circulated, several of his colleagues weighed in to express their views.

Sources said some senior judges with comorbidities were in favour of the temporary closure of the buildings and the corresponding effect on their productivity due to risks to themselves and their staff. Others expressed a desire to still utilise the court locations where needed and feasible.

Contacted yesterday, a source within the Law Association said the issue of the lack of in-person hearings was discussed at a meeting on Saturday.

Another meeting is carded for this week, when the association’s council will determine whether any involvement on its part, on behalf of its membership, is required in the circumstances.