Divorces continued to keep Family Court busy last year, with 297 new proceedings initiated.

Though 18 applications short of the highest total of divorces filed (316 in 2018), for Chief Justice Anthony Smellie the hefty volume, coupled with the filing of a significant number of new applications with existing divorce proceedings, is a worrisome trend.

“While these cases are being disposed of in a generally timely manner, there is a growing concern within the judiciary about the escalating costs of family proceedings, as well as the disproportionate amount of court time being taken for resolving matrimonial property and child custody issues – matters which reasonable parties should be able to agree upon between themselves,” Smellie said during the Grand Court opening last week.

In an effort to reduce the strain, Smellie said, from the start of the year mediation procedures have been revised to provide more procedural consistency along with a dispute-resolution service.

He said the free service will assist participants in settling their family disputes “in a cost-effective and non-adversarial manner, minimising the emotional damage caused to families in the breakdown of marriage”.

Last October, a practice direction was issued requiring parties to file and exchange estimates of costs (legal fees) in all family proceedings in the Grand Court. The aim is to address what the chief justice called escalating costs of matrimonial proceedings.

These estimates must include the costs incurred to date, along with likely future costs. “It is in the interests of the parties that each should be aware, throughout the proceedings, of their actual and potential liability for costs. This information should help those appearing before the courts to recognise the benefits of alternate dispute resolution, especially mediation, and it should concentrate their minds on what are the real issues to be determined in a proportional and more cost-effective manner,” he said.

Criminal courts stretched

In the criminal courts, the volume of work continued unabated, with 1,292 criminal charges and 6,108 traffic tickets being filed last year.

“The statistics from the Summary Courts speak for themselves and again underscore the urgent need for dedicated courtrooms for those courts,” Smellie said.

In 2018, government purchased the Scotiabank building in George Town to house additional courtrooms for the Summary Court. However, to date, the necessary modifications have not been made.

Smellie said Judicial Administration “may not” undertake the courtroom project without the permission of the Department of Planning, and input from the Public Works Department and Lands and Survey, which hold the titles to all government buildings. He called upon those departments to recognise the urgent need for the courtrooms and asked them not to allow too much red tape to delay progress.

“We now have the largest number of indictments ever awaiting trial,” he said as he called for the two courtrooms to be made available no later than May this year.

“We will be engaging a project manager especially to work with the other agencies to have these courtrooms installed by May,” he added.

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