Court’s focus on children

A Family Court will be a top priority in 2006.

Chief Justice Anthony Smellie introduced the subject by referring to the recent Budget Debate, in which Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts informed the public that funding for the Courts Building project will be included in the capital acquisitions for the restoration and new development of government buildings (Caymanian Compass, 1 December).

He made the announcement at the opening of Grand Court last week.

The new Courts Building can conveniently include physical accommodations for a Family Court, Mr. Smellie said.

He set out his reasons for making this a priority.

‘Experience before our courts has shown that the cases involving the care and protection of our children and young adults are by no means as effectively dealt with as they should be. From my own observations and experience, one major cause of this is the lack of continuity and focus in the treatment of such cases.

‘By putting these cases into a segregated administrative and judicial system, which is dedicated to dealing with them, I believe that such shortcomings can be made a thing of past. Their consequences can be very harmful: too often have we seen cases involving children under care and protection, or even wardship orders, being dealt with year after year in the system without the benefit of the regular oversight or mandate of the courts.’

Mr. Smellie emphasised that early and continuous intervention in the lives and treatment of children who are in trouble or in need of care and protection is the only effective way of helping them to become competent, self reliant individuals.

From the courts’ point of view, that kind of early and consistent intervention and involvement can best be achieved by a dedicated Family Court, he said.

The legal structure and jurisdiction are further matters of policy to be carefully considered and that process will begin immediately, he announced. The concept of a Family Court is well known in other Commonwealth jurisdictions, he pointed out, and so Cayman will not need to be completely innovative.

As a matter of the first order of business in the new year, Mr. Smellie said, he intends to invite the Attorney General and other interested parties of government to meet to consider the matter.

The Children Law will need to be addressed in this new context, he noted.

As has become traditional, the Chief Justice used the ceremonial court opening to report on other matters concerning the administration of justice.

He referred to informal suggestions that Cayman should consider the introduction of a commercial court, apparently because it would help to enhance the Islands’ image as a sophisticated financial centre.

However, he pointed out, there have been no significant delays in the disposal of such cases, although the courts deal with more than 700 of them each year. For the past several years he had been able to report that a trial of a complex civil or commercial matter can be listed within six months of commencement of action and of any involved interlocutory matter, within only six weeks.

Since the beginning of 1998, a total of 5,164 civil and commercial cases have been taken in the Grand Court, he said.

‘This is an extraordinary rate of disposal by virtue of the size of our establishment and taking account also of the scope and volume of the rest of our business.’

A visiting expert had found last year that that Cayman’s civil justice administration system is efficient and that the dedicated registry and other court staff do, in the main, provide the level of support which the judges need to perform their functions.

Another asset is a fully computerised courtroom, in which complex cases can and have been tried with remarkable facility because all documents are accessible in digital format, Mr. Smellie said.

Although there is no need to have a separate commercial court, he agreed it would be sensible to put in place a structure to ensure continuing ability to maintain or even improve the current rate of case disposal.

The conclusion reached, therefore, is that the expert should be engaged to advise on establishing administrative divisions, including a commercial division, of the Grand Court. This is to be done in consultation with the Rules Committee, whose membership includes representatives of the civil and commercial bar.

Mr. Smellie also reported on plans for a specialised judicial and legal website, which is expected to be operational in its first phase by the end of March. Law firms are invited to study the site specifications and give their input. The protocol for encrypted on-line access will have to be settled, he said.

At the inter-active stages, the web-site will allow for hyper-linked access to the laws and law reports; and to the court’s computer systems for the searching of the registry of actions; for the electronic filing of pleadings and other documents; for encrypted access to case files; and ultimately; for the payment into court of fees, fines and other payments.

Other plans for 2006 include a training programme for Justices of the Peace, to be developed and delivered by Magistrate Grace Donalds. The Chief Justice noted that there are 109 JPs in Grand Cayman and 27 for Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. He thanked the JPs for their service in a system of justice that is community based.

Court statistics

Summary Court: In 2005 there were 3,074 traffic charges filed and 2,131 criminal charges.

In Cayman Brac, 116 were dealt with.

Youth Court: There is an encouraging downward trend: 86 charges filed in 2005, compared with 105 in 2004 and 163 in 2003.

Grand Court: There were 79 indictments filed last year. The court still has 64 indictments to deal with.

Civil cases totalled 594.

Divorces were at an all-time high – 200.

Court of Appeal: There were 24 criminal appeals and 31 civil appeals last year.

Privy Council: Two criminal and three civil appeals were taken to the Privy Council.