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Law Association president Douglas Mendes SC

The Law Association of T&T is advocating for dialogue amongst the stakeholders over the Judiciary’s current policy to suspend in-person hearings at courthouses nationwide as a precaution during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The association’s president Douglas Mendes, SC, made the call in a letter on the issue sent to its membership yesterday afternoon, a copy of which was obtained by Guardian Media.

“We encourage the Judiciary to take advantage of this wellspring of goodwill and to engage in meaningful consultation amongst its members and with the Bar on the appropriate measures which should be adopted,” Mendes said.

Mendes noted that the association’s executive council met on Saturday to discuss the issue and the public war of words on the issue which spilled into the public domain between Chief Justice Ivor Archie and outspoken High Court Judge Frank Seepersad, who is against the move.

Mendes noted, however, that the association was sympathetic to the justification for either position.

“We are satisfied that while there is a difference of opinion among members of the judiciary as to the holding of in-person hearings at this point in time, the views expressed suggest they all have the interests of the public and the administration of justice at heart,” he said.

Mendes noted that the council had also decided to hold discussions with Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Dr Roshan Parasram over possible health and safety measures that could be implemented to facilitate such hearings.

The issue became a public debate last week after Seepersad wrote to Archie complaining of a practice direction which suspended physical hearings except in domestic violence cases.

In his letter, which was also obtained by Guardian Media, Seepersad said that the reliance on virtual trials has negatively impacted 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 that 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.

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

In a scathing response, however, Archie strongly criticised Seepersad’s conduct and warned against it as he claimed that it may attract liability if unforeseeable incidents occur.

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 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.

Justice Carol Gobin also wrote a letter expressing similar concerns to Seepersad but the CJ did not respond in similar fashion to her complaints.

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

Sources said that 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.

—Derek Achong