Court chaos

I write with deep regret to bring to your attention the serious issues which are chronically plaguing the Supreme Court of Barbados and the administration of justice in Barbados.

On Tuesday September 25, 2012, I arrived at the Supreme Court of Barbados at the 9:30 a.m. appointed time. Approximately 10 other cases, including a trial, were scheduled to be heard in the courtroom to which I was assigned, in addition to mine. There were also numerous other attorneys and members of the public, most standing, waiting for their cases to be heard outside the various civil courts.

The first issue is that all persons involved in all cases are told to come for 9:30 a.m. I observed in excess of 130 persons standing for prolonged periods outside of the courtrooms waiting for their cases to be called. Included in the company was a heavily pregnant woman with swollen feet, disabled and elderly persons as well as senior and junior attorneys.

Since there are at present a few marble benches and only 18 chairs (I counted) placed for seating in this area, this means that the overwhelming majority of the persons present were forced to stand and wait for hours until their matters were called. At the time when I did my count there were literally 76 people standing around waiting. One gentleman whose case was reassigned from Court 9 to Court 8 actually got up and took the chair he was sitting on across the hall to sit in front Court 8.

During the time in which we were waiting, which in my case was in excess of four hours, the best word which can be used to describe the proceedings was “utter chaos”. Matters were reassigned from one court to the next without a designated member of the Registration Department, which is responsible for the scheduling of matters before the Supreme Court, either posting the changes by way of a notice or simply coming upstairs to inform the persons waiting.

In some instances, persons came to court only to be informed that the judge before whom their matter was to be heard was not there, and they would have to obtain an adjournment and return on another date. In two instances, judges were absent but a long list of matters was nevertheless listed as being heard before the said judges. I spoke to a number of attorneys whose cases had been inadvertently left off the court list and were unsure if their case would be heard or if even the file would even be located.

A case in point is that there were 12 matters set down for hearing before the Master for the day and 62 for the week and the Master and his clerk are both on vacation. Was the vacation schedule of the Master not known to the Registrar before the preparation of the list?

After waiting for considerable time, attorneys and even clients became frustrated and actually left the courts to go to the Registration Department to enquire as to what was going on. When the designated staff member of the Registration Department finally appeared, even she seemed unaware as to which judges were assigned to which cases, and then the information as to which judges would hear the matters for the judges that were absent finally started to trickle out.

During this period, an attorney who no doubt had to wait a considerable time before finally being called to appear before a judge, collapsed and an ambulance was summoned to the scene to render assistance.

After arriving at approximately 9:30 a.m., and waiting some four hours, I was then told that the file relating to my matter was missing and could not be found and I was invited to return to court on Thursday September 27, 2012. I refused the offer to “return on Thursday” and insisted that someone look for the file as I had already wasted the whole day and was not prepared to waste another.

I continued to wait, and was relieved when the file was finally found and I was seen by the judge around 3:30 p.m. I had therefore spent a total of six hours waiting outside the court to be seen for a matter which took less than ten minutes. I can only imagine the frustration of ordinary citizens who have to take time out from work, and come to the court seeking justice, only to endure this scenario, which has become the norm.

What compounds matters is that the cafeteria of the court is now closed and the water cooler on the third floor is not working properly and there is no water to be had unless the user is prepared to place his/her mouth on the nozzle and suck. I was forced to go into the bathroom and drink water from the tap.

Mercifully at 1:40 p.m. Ms Knight from the Registry came around with a few bags of cassava chips, a couple bottles of diet sprite and some plastic cups and did her best to stretch them among the people still waiting.

This situation is has now reached crisis proportions and is unfair to all users of the Supreme Court Complex. This laissez faire attitude towards the administration of justice in Barbados can no longer be tolerated. The wheels and machinery of justice are grinding to a halt.

The inefficiencies in the system contribute to considerable delay in the final determination of cases. When litigants have to constantly return to court, this drives up the costs which citizens have to pay in respect of their matters. Regrettably, this increase in costs may also have the unintended but grave consequence of making justice inaccessible for the most vulnerable in our society.

At this rate the proverbial backlog will never be cleared but will be added to daily as the inefficiencies in the system frustrate and pervert the course of justice in Barbados. The ideal of the rule of law, access to justice and the constitutionally guaranteed right to a fair hearing within a reasonable time cannot exist in these conditions.

The failure to properly manage court administration has created the untenable situation where there is now a fetter on the public’s constitutional right of access to justice in Barbados. We are on the edge of a precipice. It is a lot easier to claw yourself back from the edge than to climb out once you have fallen into the hole.

— Wilfred Abrahams


Past President of the Barbados Bar Association

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