Courts should continue virtual proceedings after COVID

Courts should continue virtual proceedings after COVID

By Alicia Willis
Observer senior reporter

Monday, September 28, 2020

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President of the Jamaica Bar Association Emile Leiba has pointed to the need for the various activities in the island's courts to keep pace with the major shift which has seen a number of court proceedings taking place virtually, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

“This is an opportunity we have to increase efficiency, because the concept of justice delayed being justice denied is something we think we must always be vigilant about and have in the forefront of our consciousness when it comes to representation before the court, and in respect of the clients because we are all stakeholders and it's a service,” Leiba said.

“Members of the public come before the courts with an expectation that they will receive justice and that they will receive justice in the manner most appropriate and expeditious,” he told last Thursday's special virtual sitting of the Court of Appeal to mark the opening of the Michaelmas Term.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the closure of the doors of courts in the island on several occasions since March, led to the almost instant transition to the use of technology, which has seen bail applications and even appeals being done electronically, among other things. But Leiba said with the virtual shift, other areas needed to align.

“Unfortunately, I, this week in appearing before the lower courts, had the experience of the more things change, the more they remain the same where both hearings were virtual, but then both files were physical and were not present before the court. So no matter how many video cameras you have, and no matter how much bandwidth you have, if the file is not there or if there are documents that should be before the court that are not before the court, then there are limits to what we can do.

“So I think while we go virtual, we also have to work on continuing to ensure that our day-to-day physical infrastructure remains in place and sight is not lost of that,” he said, but noted that while the Court of Appeal does not tend to have those difficulties, the issue was “still worthy of note”.

Attorney Allan Wood QC, speaking on behalf of the General Legal Council, in commending the use of technology by the courts, said the gains should not be discarded when the pandemic passes.

“ I have found that the court has used this technology with great efficiency and I compliment them on the seamless way in which our hearings by video link have been held. It is something that we must now build on. I don't think even after the pandemic passes we should dispense with this. It is something we have to build on and I look forward to the promotion of a completely paperless electronic system where all the papers from the Court of Appeal will be filed electronically,” he said.

“The pandemic has forced us into the use of electronic technology, such as the use of Zoom hearings. This was unheard of six months ago and the court is to be complimented in leading the way in taking the measures for the safety of the members of the public, the profession and, of course, the courts' staff,” he noted further.

In the meantime, Justice Hilary Phillips, one of three judges presiding over the sitting, speaking on the matter of outstanding judgements, which has been a perennial problem, said the judges continue to work steadfastly to reduce the backlog.

“We are pleased to inform you that we have delivered 111 judgements so far this year as against 124 judgements for the entire year last year. We have 12 judgements set down for delivery in this court this morning so we are working very hard serving the people of this country,” she told the sitting.

As it relates to the issue of outstanding transcripts which have also been a major sticking point, she said there are over 400 outstanding transcripts in the civil and criminal division of the Supreme Court which impacts the courts ability to dispose of matters with dispatch.

“We continue to make efforts to have the same produced,” Phillips stated. She added that the court's broadband service has been improved to allow it to deliver a more reliable videoconference experience.

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