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Government takes action over courtroom space

A coronavirus-compliant courtroom at Sessions House is to be created so backlogged Supreme Court criminal trials can go ahead, a government minister has revealed.

Neville Tyrrell, the Acting Minister of Public Works, said: “Funding has been identified, work will begin shortly and necessary equipment has been sourced.”

Mr Tyrrell added: “The administration of justice is a critical aspect of ensuring continuity in Bermuda and the provision of timely, fair trials for defendants is equally as important.

‘‘In keeping with this and Government's aim to return Bermuda to normalcy, the Ministry of Public Works has identified funding to install the Plexiglas partitions and make the necessary modifications to the court to permit the conduct of jury trials.”

Mr Tyrrell said that Chief Justice Narinder Hargun and the court authorities had been told and officials from both departments were “working together to prioritise the works required.”

He was speaking on Tuesday after Puisne Judge Charles-Etta Simmons complained about a lack of a suitable trials venue in Supreme Court earlier that day.

Mrs Justice Simmons told defence counsel that she wanted to set trial dates for their clients' cases, but could not because no suitable courtrooms had been provided by Government.

She said 19 criminal cases were awaiting trial dates and an additional 22 “new cases” have been “listed since Covid-19 graced our shores”.

Mrs Justice Simmons said: “It is up to the Government of Bermuda to provide sufficient funds so private enterprise can fit out an appropriate space for a trial, or for Government to provide the manpower to provide an appropriate space.”

She added: “I hope that Government is aware of the court's constitutional responsibility to ensure that trials are held within a reasonable time.”

Alexandra Wheatley, the court registrar, said yesterday: “Whilst the judiciary has implemented numerous measures to ensure the people of Bermuda's access to justice such as audiovisual hearings, administrative hearings and so on, the scope for changing the way criminal jury trials are held is limited.

“Proposals were put forward for the reduction of jury members as well as for the option for the defendant to elect having the case heard by a judge alone in order to assist with the relisting of criminal trials which would have assisted the accommodation challenges.

“However, these changes involve amendments to legislation and have not been approved.”

Ms Wheatley said she was grateful to David Burch, the Minister of Public Works, and Kirk Outerbridge, the ministry's acting permanent secretary “for assisting the judiciary in resolving this most challenging situation”.

Mrs Justice Simmons raised the problem of a lack of courtroom space at a hearing in mid-July. The Supreme Court left Sessions House last year as renovations started.

Jury trials were held in a modified Magistrates' Court courtroom in the Dame Lois Browne-Evans Building for about 12 months, but were halted earlier this year because of Covid-19 concerns.

Neville Tyrell, the acting public works minister (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

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Published August 21, 2020 at 9:00 am (Updated August 21, 2020 at 9:04 am)

Government takes action over courtroom space

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