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Denial of funding for ‘obsolete’ court system ‘has severe repercussions to Bermuda’

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Alexandra Domingues, Registrar for the Courts of Bermuda (Photograph supplied)
Magistrates' Court (File photograph)

A case management system that is the “lifeblood” of the island’s courts must be replaced as a priority, the Registrar of the Courts said.

Alexandra Domingues noted in an annual report that the judiciary was told the funding needed to buy an up-to-date system this year was denied by the Government.

She told The Royal Gazette last week: “Estimates which have been obtained range from $3 million to $5 million for the cost of a new case management system.

“Albeit this is of a significant cost, it is essential that the courts be provided the resources in order to carry out their functions under the Bermuda Constitution.”

David Burt, the Premier and Minister of Finance, said on Wednesday: “The importance of this case management system is recognised, and it will be part of the considerations as I review government finances during the budget review process.”

Ms Domingues said the system used by the courts was the Judicial Enforcement Management System, which was bought in or around 2007.

She explained that it changed ownership several times, which resulted in gradually diminishing availability of support and maintenance services as well as an absence of updates.

Ms Domingues added: “Last year, the courts were notified that there was a final change in ownership which would result in there no longer being any support or maintenance services available whatsoever as of May 2022.

“Consequently, a request was made for the 2022-23 Budget for there to be capital allocation for the courts to purchase a new case management system.

“The capital expenditure was not granted.”

She said that other options have been explored since 2016 such as a system generally used by private practices but which did not have all the features needed by the courts.

Ms Domingues added: “Further consideration was given just prior to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic to another case management system which was presented by representatives of the Bar Council who confirmed law firms from the private sector were willing to fund this system.

“Regrettably, this system also did not include several essential functions required by the courts, so this was not an option.

“I believe the approximate cost of this system was $400,000. This significantly lower cost reflected the numerous capabilities which are not available even by way of customisation for the courts.”

She said: “Jems is the lifeblood of the courts.

“It is used to schedule, track and record all aspects of all cases brought before the courts.”

Ms Domingues said that Jems had a number of functions in Magistrates’ Court.

They included the ability for staff and police to "create, manage and track court-generated warrants for non-appearance and non-compliance“.

She added: “Magistrates’ Court convictions often include a payable penalty not seen in the Supreme Court.

“The Jems system records the penalty and obligation, accepts payments and tracks the outstanding balance.

“Jems also manages family support/child support obligations and payments.”

In the Supreme Court, Jems can record information about all case-related events.

The system has several other functions such as capturing images of incoming files and outgoing documents; using templates to standardise documents created by the courts; and recording the outcomes of all dispositions and judgments.

Ms Domingues said: “It is therefore essential that a new system is obtained as a priority.

“Furthermore, an important function with a modern case management system will be the ability to implement electronic filing, ability for online payments of fines and filing fees, etc.

“The capabilities of modern case management systems far exceed Jems’s capabilities and will overall create greater efficiency and ease of access to justice for all members of the public.”

In the Bermuda Judiciary Annual Report 2021, published earlier, the courts registrar wrote: “While it is appreciated the economy has taken a hit as a direct result of Covid-19, the judiciary cannot function without a case management system.

“Our current case management system will becoming obsolete as of May 2022, so the short-sightedness of denying this funding has severe repercussions to Bermuda.”

Ms Domingues added then: “The judiciary cannot ensure members of the public access to fair hearings before an independent and impartial court which is guaranteed by the Bermuda Constitution Order 1968 without being provided the required infrastructure to do so.

“Former Chief Justice Ian Kawaley rigorously advocated for the independence of the judiciary to be recognised and formalised by the Government.

“It is evident for reasons such as this that efforts will be renewed by the judiciary for administrative autonomy, which is an essential element of judicial independence.”

Narinder Hargun, centre, the Chief Justice of Bermuda, is flanked by puisne justices Charles-Etta Simmons, Nicole Stoneham and Shade Subair Williams and Juan Wolffe, then the senior magistrate, during a special sitting of the legal year for the judiciary at Sessions House in Hamilton in 2020. On the clerk's bench are Alexandra Domingues, the courts registrar, and Audley Quallo, the clerk to the Court of Appeal (File photograph by Blaire Simmons)

Mr Burt, who resumed the role of finance minister after the resignation of Curtis Dickinson from the post in February, said this week: “During the 2022-23 budget process, there were a significant number of high-priority requests for capital funding that were not supported at the time.

“Since I have returned to the Ministry of Finance, I have examined the requests, and we are making allowances for high-priority projects and services that were not funded during last year's budget process.

“The Cabinet will soon consider additional funding for capital projects and IT upgrades that are essential to provide improved public services to Bermuda's residents.”

Audley Quallo, the Court of Appeal clerk, added his voice to the concerns raised by Ms Domingues.

He wrote in the annual report: “While the Court of Appeal has found relief in a cloud-based solution for the intended purpose of hearings, we remain in the shadows with no electronic case management software, which is unsatisfactory for a senior appellate court in 2021.”

Charles-Etta Simmons, then the Supreme Court criminal division supervising judge, wrote in the report: “The pandemic has revealed that our budget is insufficient to even sustain the systems that we have been using for the last three years.

“Further, there has been a lacuna in obtaining the assistance of other departments in our attempt to upgrade our systems and provide services.”

Mrs Justice Simmons, who stepped down in April, added: “Without an adequate budget and support for technology, the courts cannot operate efficiently.

“We will continue to experience delays in cases where technology has failed us.”

Challenging year in matrimonial and family division

Puisne judge Nicole Stoneham, head of the Supreme Court’s matrimonial division, said that 2021 was “the worst of times” for her section.

She added: “It was the most heart-wrenching and exhausting of times.

“It was the year of remote video hearings zooming into home offices, living rooms, bedrooms and the front seat of motor cars; oral evidence, buffering and scowling faces freezing in unison seconds prior to vanishing into wireless fidelity.”

In the Bermuda Judiciary Annual Report 2021, Mrs Justice Stoneham said that the matrimonial and family division saw its administrative team “plummet to one administrator as the number of divorce petitions and sundry applications made by litigants-in-persons skyrocketed”.

She added: "An estimated 82 appearances were listed for litigants-in-person before the judge in Chambers in respect of matters in which they were the applicant.”

The 2020 annual report said there were 40 Chambers applications made by litigants acting without counsel.

It added: “The most common reason provided by litigants for appearing without legal representation was their inability to afford attorney’s fees."

Mrs Justice Stoneham wrote this year: “The year 2021 was the year that the lone administrator, Ms Carmen Edness, foraged the building, week after week, for an available hearing room outfitted with a court recording system so that desperate and sometimes quarantined parents and attorneys could be heard remotely via Zoom.

“It was the year of an undeniable breakdown in the very legal machinery designed to regulate disputes concerning families.

“Prior to 2016 the division was regularly staffed with three administrators to carry out a plethora of tasks including supporting the judge administratively.

“Since then, the administrative staffing of the division has been haphazard, at best.

“This administrative challenge coupled with the explosion in the number of litigants-in-person filing documents and appearing in proceedings, inherently designed for specialists’ attorneys, strained the division.”

Juan Wolffe, writing in the report as the senior magistrate – the position he held before he was appointed to the Supreme Court, said that efforts must continue to be made towards “providing the Magistrates’ Court with legislation, programmes and systems which we have been vociferously advocating for over the past few years”.

These included: “Implementation of a digital case management system which would streamline the administrative processes of fixing dates for hearings and trials, and which would allow for pleadings and documentary evidence to be easily and immediately available to the parties.”

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Published July 22, 2022 at 7:58 am (Updated July 22, 2022 at 7:43 am)

Denial of funding for ‘obsolete’ court system ‘has severe repercussions to Bermuda’

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