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Centuries-old courtroom shuts

Sessions House, where renovations are expected to be carried out later this year (File photograph).

Supreme Court cases will no longer be heard in historic Sessions House after the building is renovated, the Speaker of the House of Assembly confirmed yesterday.

Dennis Lister said that the 200-year-old courtroom would be used by the legislature after work is completed later this year.

The news came after the judiciary highlighted in its annual report that a lack of court space had contributed to a backlog of criminal cases.

A source who was close to the planning of the Dame Lois Browne-Evans Building in Hamilton more than a decade ago claimed an opportunity to move Supreme Court sittings to the new court complex was rejected by the Chief Justice.

Mr Lister said Sessions House, built in about 1819, needed urgent work.

He added: “The building is in need of major modernisation renovations, like any building of that age that has never been fully renovated. The concern is to bring an old building up to today’s standards, to preserve the old building and save the old building. If we don’t preserve it, one day we will lose it.”

Mr Lister said: “When the building is completed, the entire building will be for the purposes of housing the legislature and all the infrastructure that is required for supporting the legislature.”

Mr Lister explained that would not only include the Speaker’s office, which “should be there anyway”, but also space for clerks and other staff.

The original plan for the Dame Lois Browne-Evans Building was that it would be shared by the Magistrates’ Courts and the police.

But Lieutenant-Colonel David Burch suggested the addition of Supreme Court to the premises when he was the works and engineering and housing minister in 2006, which would have made Sessions House for the legislature only.

That plan was later ruled out.

A source close to the work at the time claimed this week that former chief justice Sir Richard Ground opted not to relocate to the new building.

It was reported in 2010, more than a year before the Dame Lois Browne-Evans Building opened, that Sir Richard ­— who has since died — had been “pushing for a new Supreme Court” since he took up the top judge post in 2004, although he admitted that the new Magistrates’ Court building was “the right priority”.

The Bermuda Judiciary Annual Report 2018, published in February, highlighted concerns that the closure of the appeal court on Front Street had lead to backlogs for criminal matters after sittings were moved to Court 1 in Sessions House, which is the second criminal Supreme Court.

Further disruption was expected to result from the relocation of Court 1 during the upcoming renovation works and beyond.

Alexandra Wheatley, the courts registrar, said in the report that the judiciary had been told that Parliament did not want it to return to Sessions House “in any capacity”.

Scott Pearman, the One Bermuda Alliance Shadow Minister of Legal Affairs, asked about the removal of court space from Sessions House in Parliament last month.

He said yesterday: “The news that historic Court 1 in the House of Sessions will cease to be a courtroom is unfortunate news in its own right.

“But when you place this decision in the larger context, with two other courtrooms having already closed in the past two years, this reveals a lack of any co-ordinated approach to Bermuda’s court system.

“Our island will soon have three fewer courtrooms. Where and how does the current Government plan to take up the strain of lost space?

“And why has this decision to close Court 1 been so shrouded in secrecy?”

The One Bermuda Alliance MP said his party asked “very specific” questions in the Budget debate on March 13, including: “Will the judicial department under this ministry have one fewer courtroom than it already does? Or will this disappearing courtroom be moved elsewhere?”

Mr Pearman added: “Sadly, Bermudians did not get any answer to this important question.

“So we are left with a basic failure by the Government to identify how or where these significant gaps will be filled. This puts a strain on the whole court system. This, in turn, impacts upon the public, which the courts already struggle to serve.

“When a person goes to court, it is usually because trauma has touched their lives — perhaps a divorce, or a criminal charge, maybe the collapse of a business, or where someone suffers a personal injury.

“These are not easy life experiences. Bermuda needs a court system that ensures access to justice for those who are already facing difficult personal circumstances.”

He added: “Ultimately, it is the public who will suffer.”

Kim Wilson, the Minister of Health who led the House of Assembly debate on behalf of the legal affairs ministry, said then that the Department of Public Works was working with the ministry to make sure that “the responsible renovations and the relocation of the courts” happened as quickly as possible.

She added: “The technical staff are in consultation with the registrar to ensure that the needs of the judiciary are being addressed.”

The Ministry of Public Works said last Sunday that the “preservation of the historical aspects of the building” would be prioritised while works are carried out at Sessions House, but declined to comment further yesterday.