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Chief Justice suggests judge-alone criminal trials for specific case types

Chief Justice suggests judge-alone criminal trials for specific case types
CHIEF JUSTICE Janice Pereira

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THE TIME IS RIPE for Governments, consulting with civil society, to begin discussing judge alone criminal trials for specific case types.

Chief Justice of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court (ECSC), Dame Janice M Pereira, made this suggestion on Wednesday, January 13, at the virtual opening of the law year of 2021.

She was in the process of reviewing the court’s progress in 2020. The Justice considered that the ECSC had dealt with an extremely heavy case load.

However, on the other hand, “the Covid-19 pandemic significantly hampered the court’s ability to effectively manage its case load and has laid bare the weaknesses and challenges faced in an already under- resourced environment.”

Pereira noted that in several of the court’s member states and territories, the pandemic ground jury trials to a halt.

St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) was one of the member states that halted jury trials for some time.

The Chief Justice explained that these trials were halted, “due mostly to our inability to provide the required proper physical distancing protocols in many of our existing court rooms.”

She said that the “simple truth” is that many of the courtrooms are too small, and “in the Covid-19 environment, it is impossible to have jurors sit elbow to elbow.”

She pondered on what may be the solution to this problem.

“In my view, the time is ripe for our Governments, in consultation with civil society to engage in discussions on the implementation of Judge alone criminal trials for specific case types, within the context and framework of the constitutional mandate of fair trials, within a reasonable time,” the Chief Justice concluded.

Such trials are not new to the Caribbean, and have apparently enjoyed much success in reducing the backlog of cases in Trinidad and Tobago, as well as Belize.

“I have no doubt that in this Covid climate in particular, the implementation of judge alone criminal trials would go a long way in reducing the backlog of criminal cases in the Eastern Caribbean with no impact whatsoever on the fairness of such trials,” Pereira concluded.

On the other hand, the deepening of reliance on Information and Communications Technology(ICT) tools has allowed for efficiency in areas such as the civil and commercial matters.

These, “saw less disruption with a smoother transition to the use of electronic communication including video conferencing, using a variety of virtual platforms such as zoom for conducting remote hearings, from any suitable location.”

Some member states have succeeded in a blended approach where it concerns jury trials, where they conduct these trials partly in person, and partly through virtual hearings.

The courts’ e-litigation portal was also crucial, providing electronic filing for documents.

Pereira said that the e-litigation portal is “vital for the effective operations of the court”, “in the face of our vulnerabilities to natural disasters, and now, a pandemic.”

It has provided ease of filing, ease of serving, ease of paying, and the ease of accessing and managing electronic documents from anywhere.

However, SVG has yet to become one of the member states linked to the portal. Currently six have already been linked, but in Dominica, Grenada and SVG, the process has been hindered as a result of the pandemic and travel restrictions.

The Chief Justice says that their hope is for these three members to be linked by July.

“Indeed, there is no doubt that ICT driven courts are here to stay,” she stated, and encouraged legal practitioners “to become fully ICT proficient, to avoid the risk of being left behind.”