Wolffe calls for care facility for children
Top lawyers called for a beefed-up Family Court service yesterday and an on-island residential treatment centre for troubled children.
Juan Wolffe, the senior magistrate, said people called to Family Court should have better access to legal aid and psychiatric help, as well as “in-house mediators”.
He also highlighted the need for a “multi-purpose residential treatment centre” where children can be looked after instead of being sent to overseas institutions.
Mr Wolffe added an online child-support payment system should also be introduced.
The island’s top magistrate was speaking as the judiciary and lawyers marked the start of the legal year at Sessions House in Hamilton.
The ceremony was attended by members of the profession, the Judicial Department, and John Rankin, the Governor.
Mr Wolffe thanked social workers at the Department of Child and Family Services and court services for their commitment to families and people with psychological problems.
He said: “Day in and day out they comprehensively interface with our most precious commodity — our people.
“We appreciate the high level of professionalism that you exhibit in the court proceedings.
“Most importantly we appreciate your empathy, sympathy, profound care and love that you routinely show towards our children.”
Mr Wolffe criticised “irresponsible media coverage” of cases related to the Family Court and the Department of Child and Family Services.
Mr Wolffe said: “Each and every subject of those stories that had been splashed across the print and electronic media have, at some time or another, appeared in the Family Court, civil court or criminal court.
“To have their dire circumstances exploited, is beyond inconsiderate and shapes a dangerous narrative, which may have led to a negative perception of those who are deeply dedicated to addressing the mental and emotional harm of our most vulnerable persons.”
Elizabeth Christopher, the president of the Bar Council backed Mr Wolffe and singled out Eron Hill, a youth activist who has credited his time abroad on a government programme as a major influence on his life, as an example of the good work of the DCFS.
Ms Christopher said: “It is time that we get together and have some rational conversation about this.
“We have a duty, a responsibility, as members of the Bar to bring some calm and common sense to the issue.”
Ms Christopher added that lawyers and campaigners should focus on speeding up the court process.
She added that “access to justice” was difficult for many because of a lack of defence lawyers available for criminal cases.
Ms Christopher explained: “We have a dwindling senior defence Bar, as a result of changes to regulations and changes appear to have been made on a cost-analysis basis, without regard for the many needs of the criminal justice system.
“The result has been that most defendants appear underrepresented or unrepresented, or trials are facing delay, and more of our vulnerable persons are falling through the cracks.”
She added: “This is an issue that needs to be addressed by the Government before it is broken beyond repair.
“It is not only the criminal defendant who cannot access criminal justice, but also the victims of crimes, who are put through an endless ordeal of multiple court delays and dates.”
Chief Justice Narinder Hargun said that the Judicial Department would do more to ensure that trials were arranged as fast as possible.
He added that the loss of Sessions House courtrooms for Supreme Court cases would slow the speed at which trials could be held.
Mr Hargun said: “We are softly emphasising to the public works department, that any such move should only take place when the Judicial Department has replacement facilities in the Dame Lois Browne-Evans Building.”
Dennis Lister, the Speaker of the House of Assembly, announced in August last year that the Supreme Court would not return to Sessions House after its renovations.
Mr Hargun said that the Judicial Department hoped to centralise all services except civil cases, in one location to improve efficiency.
He added that amendments to the Legal Aid Act 1980 might be needed to encourage a larger pool of defence lawyers.
Mr Hargun said: “There were 32 new cases brought before the Supreme Court arraignments between March and December 2019.
“Of these cases, 18 were assisted persons, representing 56 per cent, who were represented by Legal Aid counsel.”
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