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File picture: Prisoners at the Remand Yard at the Golden Grove Prison in Arouca.

A group of over 500 remand prisoners will have to wait a while longer for their appeal challenging a judge’s decision to deny their lawyers an opportunity to cross-examine Chief Medical Officer Dr Roshan Parasram and a senior prison officer, in their ongoing legal battle over health and safety measures at the country’s prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Appellate Judge Charmaine Pemberton adjourned the hearing of their procedural appeal and their application for an expedited hearing to a date in November when the case came up for a virtual hearing before her on Tuesday.

During the hearing, Pemberton refused to deal with the appeal as she noted that she did not have time to consider the evidence, as it was filed past the deadline late last week.

Attorney Farai Hove-Masaisai, who led the group’s legal team for the hearing, claimed that his team was hampered as they were not granted satisfactory access to their clients by the T&T Prison Service to prepare their affidavits. He also noted that it was the court and not his team which suggested that the hearing should take place on Monday and that they had made personal sacrifices to prepare for the hearing over the long weekend.

Hove-Masaisai suggested that the delay would render the appeal nugatory.

Pemberton, however, did not relent from her position and advised the group that they could appeal her decision on the issue.

In the appeal, the activist group Justice Seekers Association, who filed the novel lawsuit in the name of five of its members—Dexter Simon, Timothy Mohammed, Lawrence Diaz, Kevin Patrick and Miguel Esis—is claiming that the cross-examination of Parasram and Deputy Prison Commissioner David Prince was necessary to resolve inconsistencies in the evidence for the case as to the implementation of the measures.

The group’s lawyers claimed their clients participated in the trial before Justice Robin Mohammed via video conference from the Maximum Security Prison (MSP) in Arouca, while no valid excuse was given for the absence of the State’s witnesses.

The lawsuit began after prisoners’ complaints were first highlighted in a series of pre-action protocol letters sent to the Attorney General’s Office, acting Prisons Commissioner Dennis Pulchan, Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh and National Security Minister Stuart Young in mid-April.

In May, the group’s lawyers wrote to the State seeking a series of undertakings in the case, including providing cloth masks and cleaning supplies to prisoners. None were given.

The group filed for interim relief but the application was heard along with the substantive case in a rolled-up hearing before Mohammed in late July.

Mohammed’s decision in the case is still pending.

The group’s lawyers have also noted that since issuing their correspondence there have been numerous reports of prisoners contracting the virus and prison officers being placed on quarantine, which they claim justify the urgency of the case.

Through the lawsuit, the group is seeking declarations that the Prison Service failed to comply with 1943 Prison Rules regarding actions required in a pandemic such as COVID-19 and that the alleged breach infringed their constitutional rights to life and health.

The group is also being represented by Anthony Egbert, Sallian Holdip-Francis and Antonya Pierre.

The State’s legal team is being led by Senior Counsel Fyard Hosein.