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Kawaley: deplorable staff levels in courts

Parting shot: Ian Kawaley, Chief Justice of Bermuda (File photograph by Akil Simmons)

Bermuda’s court system is crippled by a staffing crisis, the island’s top judge said yesterday.

Chief Justice Ian Kawaley and Acting Registrar Alexandra Wheatley said in a joint statement that successive Attorneys-General had failed to tackle the problem.

They added that the department was operating with only half the required staff and that this had hamstrung its ability to “provide efficient and effective access to justice for Bermuda’s residents”.

Last night Kathy Lynn Simmons, the Attorney-General, said staffing levels were higher than claimed in the statement and that action was under way to bolster staff numbers.

The joint statement sparked shock in the island’s legal fraternity. Mark Diel, a director at Marshall Diel & Myers, said the situation was an embarrassment.

“I reacted to the circular from the Supreme Court with a mixture of shock and bewilderment,” he said. “First of all, I am utterly bewildered as to how the Supreme Court could get to a level of 50 per cent staffing and anybody in the Government accepting that the Supreme Court could continue to operate at its same levels of efficiency. It’s impossible.”

He added: “What is more concerning to me is why they are down to 50 per cent.

“No one has explained why in a First World country, which we supposedly are, with one of the highest standards of living, with the highest cost of living in the world, that we are expected to operate with a court system that has 50 per cent of its staff available.”

Mr Diel said it was common knowledge in the legal world that there was a problem getting paperwork back from the courts because of a lack of manpower.

He added: “Clearly it has become critical when no less than the Chief Justice and the Acting Registrar have sent this out and said we can no longer service the legal community the way we have been doing over the last few decades. It’s frankly an embarrassment.”

Richard Horseman, of law firm Wakefield Quin, agreed that the lack in resources had “really reached a crisis point”.

He added: “Bermuda prides itself as being a top class jurisdiction for international business but this requires a fully functioning court system to be able to meet the demands placed on it. Hopefully the Government can address this situation sooner rather than later.”

Mr Diel and Mr Horseman were speaking after Mr Justice Kawaley and Ms Wheatley said in a joint statement: “The power to resolve this crisis is in the hands of the Honourable Attorney-General and minister of Legal Affairs who is the Minister with responsibility for the Judicial Department and who, like many of her predecessors, has yet to take effective action to adequately meet the administrative needs of the judiciary.”

The statement added: “The Judicial Department has exhausted its attempts to adequately resolve this crisis.

“It is neither helpful nor is it efficient use of our limited and precious resources to be further invested in fruitless exercises.”

A Circular Notice issued by the Registrar yesterday outlined a reduction in court services, which it said was “a direct result of the department’s relentless staffing crisis”.

It added that the department could no longer attempt to provide full services to the public with “just a 51 per cent complement of staff” in the Supreme Court and Magistrates’ Court divisions. The circular said: “The expectations of counsel and members of the public for efficiency and expediency, despite our desire for the department to operate in this manner, simply cannot be met.”

Mr Justice Kawaley and Ms Wheatley warned: “This deplorable situation not only impacts the Judicial Department, but its consequences are far reaching.

“Without a doubt, Bermuda as a whole is negatively impacted and, quite arguably, Bermuda’s reputation in the international business sector will be called into question.”

They also said the Court of Appeal could no longer use 113 Front Street because of “health and safety” problems.

The loss means that Monday’s Court of Appeal session has been moved to Sessions House with the knock-on effect that criminal trials “where citizens’ liberty is at stake” have been delayed for at least three weeks.

Kathy Lynn Simmons, the Attorney-General, told the Senate in March “serious” shortages had led to a “constriction of the public’s constitutional right of access to justice”.

Mr Justice Kawaley and Ms Wheatley added: “Government policies for filling vacant posts, combined with the equally onerous procedures of the Department of Human Resources, are paralysing the department’s ability to function effectively.

“Resolutions presented to gain exemptions from Public Service recruitment policies and procedures taking into account the constitutional status of the judiciary as an independent branch of Government have been summarily rebuffed without appropriate deliberation.”

Ms Simmons said last night that 52, 79 per cent, of the 66 posts in the Judicial Department were filled, although eight of the jobs were held by acting or temporary personnel.

She added that 14 jobs, or 21 per cent, were vacant without relief support, most of them in administrative or similar roles. Ms Simmons added: “Upon assuming office I was apprised of vacancies, within my ministry generally and the judiciary in particular, created in large part by the former government’s civil service staff reduction policies.

“Measures have since been taken to address this issue. Indeed, the data also reveals that a number of the vacated positions are in the process of being filled in accordance with Government’s hiring rules.”