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Chief Justice Ivor Archie

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The Judiciary will continue in its drive to rely on video conferencing technology for most court hearings.

The announcement was made on Sunday in a COVID-19 pandemic practice direction on court operations, issued by Chief Justice Ivor Archie. The practice direction takes effect from this morning and will remain in place until further notice.

In the practice direction, which is intended to ensure continued access to justice and the safety of staff and customers during the ongoing pandemic, Archie stated that most hearings in the criminal and civil courts would be done electronically.

Archie noted that some domestic violence, family, and urgent cases, in which the interest of justice may be compromised by an electronic hearing, would be allowed to take place physically.

However, Archie said that litigants and all members of staff including judges and judicial officers would be the subject of increased health and safety protocols if they intend to utilise courthouses for hearings.

The protocols include the mandatory use of a mask as well as sanitization and screening before entry.

“Any person who displays flu-like symptoms, or who otherwise fails to meet the screening standard required for entry, may be denied entry to a court building with the alternative of pursuing any necessary business with the Court via electronic means,” Archie said.

He also encouraged litigants, who may be feeling ill on the day of their scheduled visit to a courthouse, to stay at home and request an adjournment through one of its hot-lines.

While Archie listed a procedure for criminal judges, who may wish to conduct jury trials physically during the period, he noted that such activity was discouraged as it would have a direct effect on the Prison Service and prisoners.

“In that regard, judges, judicial officers, and attorneys-at-law are reminded that every time a prisoner is brought to court, a mandatory quarantine period of 14 days is incurred upon their return to prison thereby compromising the capacity of the system to protect the prison population,” Archie said, as he noted that such hearings would have to be scheduled in advance with specific times to ensure social distancing guidelines are adhered to.

He also said that litigants and witnesses should not bring any guests to court if they are required to attend.

“Witnesses waiting to give evidence in an in-person hearing must remain seated in the designated area until they are required in the courtroom. Once a witness is relieved by the Court, the witness must leave the court location immediately,” he said.

In terms of court filings, Archie advised attorneys to continue to utilise its electronic filing systems as he noted that the fees for using it would be waived between April and December, this year.

He also stated that electronic filing kiosks at the Supreme Court buildings in Port-of-Spain, San Fernando, and Tobago, and the Family and Children’s Courts could be utilised by self-represented litigants.