Chief Justice Anthony Smellie sounded an optimistic note in his ceremonial address opening the Grand Court on Wednesday, when he acknowledged a serious backlog in criminal cases but also saw an avenue for alleviation in the prospect of a freshly renovated Scotiabank building.
The Chief Justice lauded government for purchasing the Scotiabank building and said there will be an outline business case presented for a full renovation by May, but he also said there are plans to begin immediately constructing a courtroom there that will serve as the base for the Court of Appeal.
The initial plans for construction also include new facilities for the court registrar, the clerk of the courts and court administration. In turn, that will create new space in the existing court building for a larger Legal Aid office, an additional conference room and expanded area for registry staff.
“The need for this to be done urgently cannot be overstated,” the Chief Justice said. “The intention is that when the Court of Appeal sits to hear criminal appeals, it will do so from this new courtroom and this will avoid the disruption of trials in Grand Court 1 and the knock-on disruption of cases in the Summary Courts as well.”
The first courtroom for the Court of Appeal is intended to be completed by the end of April.
Eventually, said the Chief Justice, there will be a need for three additional courtrooms.
Chief Justice Smellie said there was a record 147 Grand Court indictments carried over from 2018, and that the 71 cases concluded is about on par for previous years. The standard time of disposal for those cases was about six months, which the Chief Justice said will need to be improved over time.
The expanded court facilities will help increase the rate of disposal, but Chief Justice Smellie also referenced a need for more experienced legal practitioners who will accept Legal Aid. Right now, he said, there are more than 800 attorneys on island but only 27 who work with Legal Aid clients.
“While this number has increased in recent years beyond the 12 or 15 stalwarts of the past, it is not sufficient to ensure representation for all defendants,” said Chief Justice Smellie of the shortage of attorneys. “The result is that nowadays, the Summary Courts are required all too often to postpone trials because lawyers are engaged either before the Grand Court or, when in session, the Court of Appeal.”
Chief Justice Smellie also noted a record 316 divorce petitions last year, and he said that the Family Court practitioners must pursue a commitment to mediation to avoid the expensive and acrimonious gauntlet to trial that seldom serves the needs of the clients or the court system.
The Cayman court system is nearing the ability to process electronic filing, court searches and payments, said the Chief Justice, and those services may be implemented by the end of the year.
Chief Justice Smellie also took the time to acknowledge a retiring justice and a brand-new addition to the bench. He lauded Justice Charles Quin for his more than 10 years of service to the Cayman Islands and said that he will be sorely missed when he applies for formal retirement in June.
“We, his colleagues, are bracing ourselves for the eventuality of Justice Quin’s formal retirement in June of this year, an event which we – like the rest of the court staff, the profession and very many members of the wider community – would wish to postpone indefinitely,” said Chief Justice Smellie. “The good news though, is that he has accepted appointment to the panel of judges who serve from time to time as the need arises. Justice Quin will therefore be presiding, especially in the criminal division, from time to time.”
Chief Justice Smellie also welcomed new Justice Cheryll Richards, the former head of the Office of Public Prosecutions. Justice Richards will not be involved in any cases that she had worked in her previous capacity, and will begin her life on the bench working in various courtrooms.
“Justice Richards, as you have heard, needs no introduction, having served … with great acclaim as solicitor general and as the islands’ first director of public prosecutions,” he said. “We welcome Justice Richards and wish for her a long, fulfilling and productive career on the bench.”