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Chief Justice accused of appearance of bias

A woman who claims that she was wronged by court officials has called on the Chief Justice to recuse himself from her case.

Gayle Ann Ventures launched legal action against Clarien Bank, Justice of Appeal Geoffrey Bell and Alexandra Wheatley, the Supreme Court Registrar, over legal actions relating to a defaulted mortgage on a property on Blue Hole Hill.

While the specifics of the case have yet to be heard, at a court hearing yesterday, Ms Venture sought the recusal of Chief Justice Larry Mussenden from the case over an appearance of bias.

LeYoni Junos, who spoke on behalf of Ms Ventures at the hearing as a McKenzie friend, said the call came in the wake of a hearing that took place in November.

She argued that the way the hearing played out left Ms Ventures with the belief that she could not receive a fair trial before the Chief Justice.

Ms Junos said that while Mr Justice Mussenden restricted her to speaking on a proposed amendment to the claims, he had allowed counsel for Clarien Bank to “rant” about the case.

She said the counsel praised the reputation of both Ms Wheatley and Justice of Appeal Bell, denigrated Ms Ventures’s application and warned of indemnity costs for the case.

Ms Junos said Mr Justice Mussenden then told Ms Ventures to take the comments on board, which she interpreted as the judge indicating he “aligned himself” with the comments.

She further argued that the judge worked closely with Ms Wheatley, in her role as the Registrar of the Supreme Court, which creates an appearance of bias, and that he had assigned her to work as an assistant puisne judge despite the complaint against her.

Ms Junos told the court that Ms Ventures had launched a complaint against Mr Justice Mussenden over his handling of the hearing.

She said she later received a letter from the Judicial and Legal Services Committee, of which the Chief Justice is a member, which, according to her, essentially said the process was “in limbo” owing to the ramifications of a recent Court of Appeals case.

Ms Junos said that given the complaint, it would be improper for Mr Justice Mussenden to continue to oversee the case.

“All Ms Ventures wants is to get in front of a judge to whom she can present her case where there is not trickery where people file strike-outs and the evidence never gets heard,” she told the court.

Ben Adamson, counsel for Ms Wheatley and Justice of Appeal Bell, said that if a complaint alone was enough to force a judge to recuse themselves, it would open the door to abuses, with parties launching complaints to secure the judge they wanted.

He said that the test for apparent bias was not what Ms Ventures interpreted as taking place during the hearing, but what a fair-minded and informed observer would take from it.

Mr Adamson added that there was nothing improper about the comments made in the November hearing, stating that it was common practice for counsel to flag possible actions to be taken, such as motions to strike out and orders for indemnity costs should a case fail.

“What he did was frankly standard stuff,” he said. “Barristers do this all the time. He was laying down a marker. He was warning Ms Ventures.”

Mr Adamson said that it was appropriate for Mr Justice Mussenden to advise Ms Ventures to take the comments on board as she was not represented by a lawyer.

“Fairness can mean sitting in silence, but fairness often means it’s incumbent on the judge to make sure the parties understand what they are getting into,” he said.

“The last thing anyone wants is for someone to be left with a very large costs order resulting from all this and that’s a very real possibility in this case.”

He further argued that Mr Justice Mussenden was the right judge to hear the case given his position as Chief Justice

Mr Justice Mussenden reserved his decision until a later date.

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