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Space limitations place jury trials at risk

Supreme Court trials may not restart until next year because of a lack of court space, a judge warned yesterday.

Puisne Judge Charles-Etta Simmons said that there might be legal consequences because of the delays, particularly in cases where defendants were in custody.

She said: “There is a real likelihood that we will not have a criminal trial in the Supreme Court this year.

“I know there may be consequences that follow from it, but having started this since the end of March, I believe my team has done as much as it can do to try to effect a useful space.”

Mrs Justice Simmons told lawyers present in the courtroom: “It's unfair to you to continue to ready yourselves for trial when I cannot tell you when a trial will take place.

“I accept that there will be consequences for me having said this because of the predicament the court is in. I cannot say anything more.

“Whatever the consequences are, the court will have to deal with it.”

Mrs Justice Simmons said it was hoped that criminal trials would be able to begin next month and that trials had been scheduled for August 2.

She added that 15 cases had already had trial dates assigned for the remaining months of the year, but they could face delays.

Mrs Justice Simmons said court staff had worked hard to get a criminal court reopened so trials could be conducted in line with Covid-19 regulations, but had been faced with “many difficulties”.

She added that several locations had been considered, but the options were expensive and funding was limited. The judge said the courts had looked at Bermuda College and schools as potential trial venues as they were closed and had areas large enough to accommodate a trial.

But she added that it had not worked out and the schools were now being prepared for the new school year.

Mrs Justice Simmons said Pier 6 on Front Street had also been considered, but would have cost too much.

She added that the venue was large enough to work, but that internal alterations would have been needed.

Mrs Justice Simmons said: “The Corporation of Hamilton were not willing to take on the financial responsibility of carrying out the work and they expected us to pay rent, and it was rather exorbitant rent.”

The judiciary also looked at the old Customs Hall on Front Street, but it was found to be unsuitable.

Mrs Justice Simmons said: “Although there was a possibility of using those premises because it would have been large enough, there was a lack of lavatory facilities.

“There would have been one near where the jury room would have been, but that was the only one.”

She added that renovations to the building would have taken three to four months.

Mrs Justice Simmons said a return to Supreme Court 1 on the lower floor of Sessions House was also considered, but changes to allow for social-distancing rules would have been difficult and expensive.

The Supreme Court left Sessions House last year as renovations started and the Government promised new court space would be created in the Dame Lois Browne-Evans Building.

Jury trials were held in a modified Magistrates' Court courtroom in the DLBE building for more than a year, but they were halted earlier this year because of Covid-19 concerns.

Cindy Clarke, the Deputy Director of the Department of Public Prosecution, said the department was examining cases to see if they could be moved to Magistrates' Court to ease the burden on the Supreme Court.

The Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court have highlighted that defendants had a right to a trial “within a reasonable period of time”.

Section 6(1) of the Bermuda Constitution said: “If any person is charged with a criminal offence, then, unless the charge is withdrawn, the case shall be afforded a fair hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial court established by law.”

If the courts found there had been an unreasonable delay, they could stay the case entirely if an alternative was not found.

The Supreme Court last year stayed proceedings against a man who spent more than two years behind bars for a cannabis offence he was never convicted of because of a series of legal delays.

Puisne Judge Charles-Etta Simmons (File photograph)

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Published July 16, 2020 at 9:00 am (Updated July 16, 2020 at 7:59 am)

Space limitations place jury trials at risk

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