While in-person sittings of the island’s courts have been suspended due to the COVID-19 challenges locally, Justice Minister, Delroy Chuck, has urged persons with both criminal and civil matters to rethink their cases in order to arrive at solutions.
He revealed at Friday’s online Town Hall meeting of the ministry that the courts have indicated that guilty pleas for criminal matters, especially for minor offences, can still be accommodated by judges.
“I want to say to all litigants in the courts, rethink your cases. The courts have said that guilty pleas will be accepted, and especially in the parish courts, I would say that persons with minor offences who know that they are guilty, speak to your lawyer with a view to come in and plea guilty,” Chuck urged.
“At this time, I’m sure the judges will hopefully extend a lot of mercy and don’t send them to prison, but this is the opportunity to close your case,” he added.
In relation to litigants with civil matters, the minister urged them as well, to enter discussions with their attorneys to arrive at settlements in their respective cases.
“It is the same with litigants with civil matters. If the participants, especially the attorneys, can discuss and mediate… If you can settle your matter, then you can come to court and get a consent judgment. That would ease the burden when the courts reopen,” Chuck stated.
In reiterating the need for persons to think about their cases, Chuck asserted that if the matters are settled earlier, persons would avoid the “long line” once in-person hearings of matters resume.
“So I’m asking persons to take the opportunity to reflect on their matters and see to what extent they can be expedited, so when the courts fully open again, their matters would have been cleared up, and they are not part of the long line that would be there to settle the matters or put future matters ahead,” he indicated.
The justice minister emphasised that having legal representation is important in order to receive the best advice, and to prevent situations where persons who are not guilty, offer guilty pleas.
“If they (persons before the courts) don’t have attorneys, I would strongly advise them to get in touch with the Legal Aid Council, because we don’t want people who are not guilty to plea guilty,” said Chuck.
“So it is best to get advice from the Legal Aid Council and the Legal Aid Council would best be able to advise them and possibly assist those persons who don’t have legal representation, to access the court,” he added.
Meanwhile, Chief Judge of the Parish Courts, Chester Crooks, reminded that justice is for all and not just for persons who desire to offer guilty pleas.
“I don’t want the impression to be given that the access for justice is for persons who want to plea guilty; it’s access to justice for all,” he remarked.
“With that being said, we are living in abnormal times. The thing though is that there are some persons on any given day who want their matters to be dealt with expeditiously, and as much as we can, we accommodate matters that can be significantly shortened if the person wants to take a particular course in terms of pleading guilty,” he said.
The chief parish judge reiterated the justice minister’s point that “the best practice” is for accused persons to “have the benefit of counsel or legal aid representation.”
He stressed that “We ensure that we protect their (accused persons’) legal rights as much as possible. So it’s access to justice for all.”
Earlier this month, the Court Administration Division announced that the suspension of sittings at parish courts had been extended until May 11, due to the increase in cases of COVID-19, and the measures being implemented by the Government to contain the spread of the virus nationally. As a result, the courts have implemented several measures, including the suspension of all sittings and hearings except for matters deemed by a judge to be fit for hearing during this period.
The Court Administration Division, however, disclosed that “matters in relation to domestic violence, maintenance, breaches of the Quarantine Act, and cases involving children, will always be treated as emergency matters.
“In civil matters, no trials are to take place. Judgments in default may continue within the discretion of the judge, having regard to all the circumstances,” the division added.
In regards to bail conditions of accused persons, “All persons on bail will have their bail extended until their next court date, which will be announced on our websites and through the press.”
Guilty pleas are to be facilitated by the judges of both the criminal and traffic courts, while all night court hearings have been postponed.