Sep 29, 2020 Letters
I was utterly shocked when I read the profound statement released by the Guyana Bar Association. I commend these young professionals for their bold, courageous and informed position, which was so well-articulated.
It is after reading the statement of the Bar Association that I was made aware that jury trials were scheduled to be resumed in Guyana. This has to be the first territory in the Commonwealth Caribbean to contemplate such a frightening, irresponsible and reckless course of action in the face of a rampant, uncontrolled pandemic particularly in Region 4. This is a grave tragedy.
History has taught us that with great power comes even greater responsibility for those who hold the reins of power and who hold the fate and well-being of segments of society within their control.
The Head of the Judiciary has to be aware of the enormous power that resides with them in summoning members of society to command them to be present at Court to serve as jurors at this specific juncture.
To elect to exercise that authority upon civil society who are already overburdened with the events of the last six months, electoral, COVID and financial depression, is disgraceful and indicates that our welfare is certainly not a paramount consideration.
On Friday September 25, 2020, a jury trial was convened at the High Court, Demerara. The Attorneys-at-law conveyed their unease at being physically present in the courtroom to conduct the trial and the Defence Attorney pointed out the fact to the Court that a police officer attached to the Court had tested positive for the dreaded COVID-19 virus.
This fact was not disclosed by the Judiciary to the participants, police officers, jurors, court staff or attorneys prior to the hearing. Further, not a single step was taken by this Institution to contact trace, quarantine, isolate and identify the members of staff working at the High Court who may have had contact with the COVID patient. This demonstrates the failure by the Judiciary to expeditiously adopt the basic operating procedure to protect the safety and wellbeing of the Court staff when there is a positive diagnosis.
The Judiciary has an obligation to inform the public of the testing regime it has in place for prospective jurors, the arrangements and modalities for transportation of the jurors to and from their homes,
This lack of response and callous disregard for the safety and lives of the staff of the Court is consistent with its ill-conceived and knee jerk decision to resume jury trials.
The Judiciary has failed to take even the most basic steps to ensure the safety of the court staff and Guyanese citizens by closing the court upon receiving news that a staffer has tested positive, as most local institutions have been doing. Yet they are forging ahead with the catastrophic resumption of jury trials. Jury trials, which will involve 12 members of the public seated in a courtroom, fearful that the person next to them may be COVID positive and asymptomatic.
Relatives and acquaintances of mine have served on juries in Georgetown. From their laments to me, it is clear that the facilities in a courtroom are unacceptable for the conducting of a jury trial and pose a threat to all present at this time.
The Judiciary ought not to seek refuge in hand sanitizer, washing of hands and social distancing as their criteria for the resumption of a jury trial. They seem content that they have done their part by so doing in ensuring the safety of the jurors. This is ludicrous and extremely disappointing.
The public expects to hear statements from the Head of the Judiciary in the manner issued by the Guyana Bar Association and Chief Justice Ivor Archie of Trinidad and Tobago, and not the reverse. It is a dire shame that the Judiciary has failed to adopt a responsible approach in view of the severe spike in COVID-19 cases. Perhaps they should take a page out of Archie CJ’s book.
Chief Justice Archie stated:
“By compelling people to physically attend upon you in a place in person, you assume a moral and legal responsibility to take all reasonable steps to safeguard their health and safety and to mitigate foreseeable risk.”
It is important to note that this statement was not even made in contemplation of the resumption of a jury trial. This arose when he gently chastised Justice Frank Seepersad for his decision to conduct an in-person hearing in the face of this pandemic. The Judiciary of Guyana should not permit in-person hearings in any matters at this time. The matters can quite properly be conducted remotely.
As the Guyana Bar Association quite accurately stated, the right to a hearing is not absolute and must be balanced against considerations such as public health.
The authors of this unthinking decision to resume jury trials have clearly turned a deaf ear to the caution of a risk of contagion by jurors, court staff, police officers and all present from asymptomatic carriers of the virus and to the escalation of cases within the country. The same applies to in-person hearings at the Court which should ALL be conducted remotely in the interest of the safety of all having regard to the surge in cases.
Chief Justice Archie also said:
“Judiciaries across the entire world are contending with the restriction of in-person hearings…It may make the difference between life and death for us judges, our devoted staff, stakeholders, litigants and every member of their households.”
Some of us are yet to grasp the meaning and implication of these statements. Clearly, the Bar Association has and I commend them.
Post-mortem expressions of sympathy by the Judiciary to bereaved relatives or monetary awards to them through legal proceedings will be no meaningful consolation.
We are sitting on a powder keg. My fervent hope and prayer is that good sense will prevail and there will be a prudent rescission of the ill-advised proposal to resume jury trials and a cessation of all in-person hearings of matters.
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