Social distancing and public-health measures have forced most institutions to re-evaluate community interactions and access. For the Cayman Islands courts system, that has meant an expansion of digital proceedings, with defendants, lawyers and judges often communicating over Zoom video calls, rather than face to face.
The transition to online hearings has not meant just anyone can log onto or broadcast court matters, however. While the www.judicial.ky website provides links to live court streams, those interested in following particular cases should be aware that proceedings are rarely available for viewing on the site.
In April, a practice direction issued by Chief Justice Anthony Smellie indicated most proceedings would be streamed live over the website, but this has not been the case. That release also called for recordings of open-court proceedings to be published on the site for 30 days after the conclusion of the spring session. Those recordings are not currently posted online.
The Judicial Administration had not clarified by press time if and when live streams would be made available on its website.
So, how can a court case be viewed?
Viewing of most court matters will take some pre-planning. To guarantee access, most individuals will still need to venture downtown – although they won’t be sitting in the standard courtroom viewing gallery.
For members of the public, hearings for cases that would normally include a public gallery will be live streamed at Constitution Hall, previously called Town Hall, in George Town. Public-health protocol has been established at the location, including distancing and frequent cleaning of chairs. Attendees are also asked to wear a mask inside the hall.
For the media, remote access has been provided through Zoom links, which are provided by email upon request. While up to two journalists may be allowed to enter a courtroom to observe proceedings in person, members of the media must first register with the Judicial Administration to be approved for online access.
Requests for access may take several hours or an entire working day, so journalists who would like to guarantee access to a case should plan ahead and request a link in advance. Journalists who have requested same-day registration and access have encountered delays.
Recording or re-broadcast of live streams is prohibited.
“Where parties or the press are allowed to observe a hearing remotely, they are reminded that it will be a contempt of court to make unauthorized recordings of the proceedings or to use or to allow the use of such recordings to interfere with the administration of justice,” Smellie’s 5 May practice direction reads.
Can the court deny remote access?
Judges and magistrates hold the power to determine whether a hearing should be held in private, if they feel such a measure is necessary to ensure proper administration of justice. Much of the Cayman Marl Road harassment case, for example, was kept offline and restricted by judge’s order this month, while the court heard evidence considered sensitive for broadcast. Family matters will also be kept offline.
“In particular, recognizing the sensitivities of such cases, the usual practice in Family and Children Law proceedings will be to not broadcast those proceedings and in criminal proceedings the broadcast may be suspended to prevent transmission to subsequent witnesses,” reads the 5 May practice direction.
Which other ways can courts be accessed?
Members of the public have a right to request hearing transcripts, audio recordings and notes from the courts. Transcripts may come with an expense, however, and access to court files relies on approval by the judge. Audio recordings are made available for listening in a court building.
Items such as cause lists, practice directions and unreported judgments, can be viewed on www.judicial.ky.