Opening of new law term – CJ looks to virtual justice

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Chief Justice Ivor Archie. FILE PHOTO –

ADMITTING the pandemic has forced the Judiciary to adapt in order to balance the dispensation of justice with the safety of all stakeholders, Chief Justice Ivor Archie says an element of virtual justice within the current system, will be the new norm, as the Judiciary continues to operate within a covid19 world.

The Judiciary’s resilience despite several challenges, chief of which was the pandemic, was the cornerstone of Archie’s virtual address on Tuesday at the opening of the 2021/2022 law term.

It was an opening with a difference as the CJ shared the limelight with key Judiciary staff at the virtual opening.

Traditionally, the law term starts with a church service, a procession by judges, an inspection of the guards outside the Hall of Justice, and the CJ’s address at the Convocation Hall inside. Just like last year, there was none of that.

With no pomp or ceremony for the second year running, because of pandemic restrictions, Archie’s virtual address featured presentations by court executive administrators, masters and registrars, and even judges.

Of the ongoing pandemic, Archie said it has forced the Judiciary to rethink and adapt in how it operates given the realities of health restrictions and the need to move from the physical to the virtual. He admitted that the pandemic had an inevitable impact on the Judiciary’s performance.

The logistics needed for physical distancing and sanitisation have impacted jury trials, he said. Over the past year, jury trials have been temporarily suspended because of limited access to court buildings. Over the past year, the criminal division was only able to complete 30 cases including eight murders.

The CJ said that division will receive attention this term with the outfitting of larger courtrooms as the restrictions due to the pandemic are likely to be an issue for some time.

The civil division was able to dispose of 3,025 matters, representing a “marginal uptick” from the last term.

The family court disposed of 2,688 matters, most of which were less than a year old.

ARCHIE’S 3 P’S

Archie reminded of his vision for the Judiciary.

“We are not trying to put physical systems and procedures in place to dispose of cases but do so in a philosophical and psychological context.”

The theme of his address was: People, Plant, and Process. He spoke of past achievements and new concepts including the implementation of drug courts, a juvenile justice system, and new rules for the criminal courts.

It also featured a change from a paper-based environment to a digital one with systems for the collection of the payment of fines and maintenance and introducing case management software.

Archie said covid19 presented an opportunity for the Judiciary to transition to the delivery of virtual justice. “This is the new normal,” he said but admitting it did not suggest that “everything was perfect.”

Archie revealed that the Judiciary’s allocation had decreased from $45.4 million for fiscal 2020 to $33 million, last year.

He said the Judiciary’s ability to sustain and accelerate transformation was hampered by the public sector’s hiring and financing arrangements “which are notoriously slow and inefficient.” This, he reiterated, was, in some cases, “incompatible with true judicial independence.”

“I therefore renew the call for the financial and administrative autonomy promised in the 2015 budget speech. This call goes as far back as 1892 when our Colonial forbearers established a commission to look into the functioning of the registrar’s office in Trinidad.

“Nothing has changed since then. Indeed, it has grown worse in the Judiciary in respect of our freedom to manage our own affairs.”

Archie said the skills-set needed for optimal functioning in a judicial environment was unique. He said the international shift was one of leaning away from a focus on “papers” (qualifications) to competencies.

In reference to the digital thrust for the country, Archie said a nation could not be transformed by digitising archaic processes and adding layers of control.

“To be clear, the Judiciary is not really engaged in a process of digitisation which is converting data from analog to digital form.

“We are in a process of digitalisation which is leveraging digital enablement to transform our business model and see value-producing opportunities.

“In that distinction, if internalised across the public sector there would be a quantum leap in productivity.”