‘The justice system has to go on’
by Katherine Renton
Senior Magistrate Rickie Burnett has indicated that he has strong objections to lawyers who are staying away from court because of COVID-19, noting that the justice system has to go on.
At the Kingstown Magistrate’s Court this Tuesday, April 7, Burnett made these comments following the unexplained absence of attorney Jomo Thomas.
Speaking through a mask, and sitting adjacent to the court clerk, who was also wearing a mask, while facing
Prosecutor Corlene Samuel, also wearing a mask, the magistrate added, “So what are we? We are human beings too.”
There were two young defendants in the box who were accompanied by two women dressed in nursing uniforms, presumably their mothers, sitting in the courtroom.
The magistrate commented he knows that these ladies would be thinking, “COVID or no COVID” they must do their work, and the accused persons have had the charge hanging over their head for a long time.
The reactions from the parents, at an adjournment, is one he could appreciate, the magistrate stated. He also noted that the parents would have adjusted their schedules to be at court, the boys were students in the school, and the matter was set at that time to accommodate the vacation.
“The justice system has to go on,” and we cannot get to a stage where the court comes to a stand still, he stated.
From indications more than one of the magistrate’s courts did not sit this week, including the Serious Offences Court, which sat for the last time on Monday, April 6, and will resume on April 25.
“I don’t know everything about it (COVID-19),” Burnett noted, but he commented that he wasn’t so sure that it was a death sentence.
Even in setting another date for the matter to be heard, they are not sure what will happen, he added.
Because of COVID-19, lawyers seem not interested in coming to court, Burnett continued. The criminal High Court, in reacting to the presence of the virus in St Vincent, has suspended all jury trials, and the Civil High Courts are hearing all matters via Skype.
Following this, Burnett indicated that he has been detecting a reluctance from lawyers, and even gotten “calls from A and B” to say they want an adjournment without them making an appearance.
“It is a system,” he intoned, and the police, prosecution, lawyers and all court staff work together. “All of us have our responsibility,” and have to be on the same page, Burnett told the court.
The magistrate added that he is also aware that some lawyers have “actually closed their chambers because of COVID-19.”
The prosecutor admitted that even though they are coming to court, “it seems as though we can’t get anything done,” apart attending to new arrests.
“Unless I am on sick leave or vacation, Rickie H Burnett will be here every day, but what happens when I get here…I don’t know,” the magistrate stated.
Burnett also noted that he is also aware that the process staff of the police force who are responsible for letting persons know when they have matters in court are uncomfortable going in the communities to serve summons.
The prosecutor stated that she understands the officers’ positions, but advanced that they may still use the phone to try and contact persons.
“In my opinion, the court is an essential service and we have to get that in our heads,” the senior magistrate said, and asked them to imagine for a brief moment if all the judges and magistrates decided to go on vacation at the same time what would happen.
“I’d prefer to be at home this morning,” he stated, but he cannot because he has a job to do, and he asked for the job.
Some time later, the matter was revisited due to a Corporal from the process staff addressing the magistrate’s comments and indicating his concerns about the virus, and the burden of sending his men with families into danger.
The magistrate told him that based on what he was saying, he felt that the court should close down, but “I’m not so sure that staying home, closing down the court” is the answer.
He also stated that the “last thing you want is for criminals to hear and to know that all the courts closed down.”
Burnett told the court that he is aware that they are “risking [their] lives to come to court every day, but maybe that’s just how it is.”
The prosecutor also stated that she understands the concerns created by the pandemic but “until the authorities say” to close down, “we have to do what we have to do.”
“We have to work with what we have until it is said no more,” Samuel commented, adding, “we can’t put the cart before the horse.”
She also asked that they “make the effort” when they come to the court, and continue doing what they are already doing, limiting the number of persons in the court room, enforcing social distancing, and asking all who enter to sanitize.
“There is no other court in session, every other court is in the state of St Vincent is out. We have to be here,” she concluded, seemingly referring to that particular day.
[Change at 11:48am on April 15, 2020 to reflect that Prosecutor Corlene Samuel is not asthmatic]