Concern over lack of court space
Access to justice will be “crippled” if there is no swift solution to a lack of adequate court space, authorities warned.
Concerns raised in The Bermuda Judiciary Annual Report 2018 centred on the loss of appeal court space from Front Street, which also affects the criminal division, and a threat to Sessions House occupancy.
The Ministry of Public Works said people will be relocated while extensive refurbishments are carried out in the historic Sessions House, and pledged there would be “minimal disruption”.
But one lawyer described changes forecast for next month as a “significant blow to the administration of justice”.
Alexandra Wheatley, the registrar, explained in the report that the Court of Appeal was moved from Court 2 at Sessions House to 113 Front Street in March 2018. Two months later, it was forced to vacate that premises for health reasons, but without an alternative the judiciary “scrambled” to hold an appeal court sitting in Court 1 last June, temporarily closing the second criminal Supreme Court.
Ms Wheatley added: “This created a further backlog of criminal matters hence curtailing the public's access to justice.”
Although the registrar was grateful for work that made the space “far more suitable” for the appeal court's judges, she said: “Neither a short-term nor long-term viable solution has yet to be proposed to remedy this situation which is most reprehensible.”
She also explained that Court 1 at Sessions House became the location for the criminal registry.
Ms Wheatley said: “To my utmost dismay, I was advised at the end of 2018 that renovations to Sessions House were forthcoming in 2019 between May and December.
“During this time, the dual-purpose Supreme Criminal Court and Court of Appeal would have to vacate this space.
“We have further been informed that Parliament does not wish the judiciary to return to Sessions House in any capacity, despite it being used as a court for time immemorial and being purpose built for the courts. Whilst alternatives were proposed, this has yet to come to fruition.”
Ms Wheatley added that her objectives for the year included the relocation of the appeal, supreme, civil and commercial courts to the Dame Lois Browne-Evans Building “so that the entire judiciary is located in one space rather than being fragmented between three or four different locations”.
The annual report, which was published in February, stated: “Every effort will continue to be made to advocate for the resolution of the current untenable position of not having a dedicated Court of Appeal as well as the potential loss of another criminal court.
“Should this not be done in the very near future, the consequences will be devastating not only for the criminal courts and the Court of Appeal, but for the people of Bermuda whose access to justice will be crippled.”
Puisne Judge Charles-Etta Simmons wrote that the criminal division would be “severely affected” if it was moved out of Sessions House.
She added: “The backlog that we so valiantly and successfully fought to eliminate under former chief justice Richard Ground's guidance would not compare to the potential backlog that would result from having only one trial court.
“The judiciary likely would fail to provide defendants with the constitutional guarantee of a fair hearing within a reasonable time.”
Mrs Justice Simmons explained that the Court of Appeal sits for about three weeks, three times a year.
She said that the result of it taking over Court 1 in 2018 was that three criminal trials were rolled over into 2019.
Richard Horseman, is a director and senior counsel at Wakefield Quin.
He told The Royal Gazette: “Following the loss of the court premises located at Front Street, the indication that Court 1 at Sessions House will also be unavailable from May 2019, perhaps permanently, is a significant blow to the administration of justice in Bermuda.
“It is difficult to see how the criminal justice system will be able to function in an efficient manner.
“We seemed to have turned the corner in securing fairly quick turnarounds of criminal trials a few years ago.
“But it seems that we are about to take a huge step backwards.”
He added: “It is really quite sad to hear that the Government does not want the courts to return to Sessions House.
“Court 1 is steeped in history and tradition and it would be a shame to lose it permanently.
“I just don't see how the judicial system will be able to sustain the current caseload unless some drastic steps are taken to find new suitable premises urgently.”
Mark Diel, is a director at Marshall Diel & Myers.
He said: “If you haven't got the court rooms to have jury trials then you're going to end up with a backlog.”
He warned that failing to ensure justice was executed swiftly could mean an accused person was remanded in custody for unduly long before trial.
Mr Diel explained that if the delay was successfully challenged on constitutional grounds, the indictment would be quashed.
He added: “Then there's no trial for someone who is potentially guilty. Certainly there's no appearance of justice being done, not to mention people being locked up without trial.”
Chief Justice Narinder Hargun also noted his concerns about court infrastructure at the start of the new legal year in February as he anticipated the Sessions House renovations.
A Ministry of Public Works spokeswoman confirmed that “extensive refurbishments and upgrades” will be conducted to Sessions House “in the upcoming months”.
She said: “This is an ageing building which requires significant renovations to ensure the safety and wellbeing of those who occupy the facility.
“The preservation of the historical aspects of the building will be an utmost priority during the renovation process.
“The upgrades will require the relocation of the existing staff and occupants of the building and the ministry will work to ensure the transition results in minimal disruption.”
• To view the judiciary report, click on the PDF link under “Related Media”