Year in review: Cayman’s courts

The courthouse building in downtown George Town.

Cayman’s Grand Court got under way on 15 Jan., with its traditional pomp and ceremony, including speeches that adapted a similar tone to years gone by.

The chief justice noted there was some tangible progress, with the acquisition of a new court building; however, he also lamented the challenges the judiciary had consistently struggled with for years. Little did the country know, those challenges would only be compounded by the difficulties posed by the new year.

From landmark rulings, to extradition battles for people wanted abroad, to high-profile assault cases that shut the courthouse down, and even to cases that garnered international attention, Cayman’s judicial system continued to operate despite the numerous challenges posed by 2020.

Judicial reviews

Most of the judicial reviews brought before the courts were matters that were continued from 2019. However, the rulings and the subsequent impact of those decisions have resulted in life-changing circumstances for all the country’s residents.

The first matter was the then ongoing port debate, which met its closing chapter before the Court of Appeal. The appeal courts set aside the Grand Court ruling which declared the Referendum Law unconstitutional. At the centre of that debate was the question of how Section 70 of the Cayman Islands Constitution was to be interpreted. The judges ultimately sided with the Cayman Islands government and ruled that a single referendum law was not unconstitutional.

In November, Doctors Express Urgent Care Ltd., filed a civil lawsuit in Grand Court against Customs and Border Control. The civil proceedings asked the court to review CBC’s raid of Doctors Express, during which an undisclosed amount of medicinal cannabinoids were seized by the officers. A decision in that matter is still pending.

Most recently, the courts have been asked to consider a judicial review into Governor Martyn Roper’s use of his reserved power to assent to a bill that created civil partnerships – a legal equivalent to marriage for both heterosexual and same-sex couples – after the Domestic Partnership Bill had been voted down in the Legislative Assembly. Although the request has been filed, the courts have yet to decide on whether to allow the judicial review.

Other civil proceedings

Other high-interest cases included the winding up of MV Advisory Ltd., the company that traded as Margaritaville Cayman. MV Advisory was ordered to pay a million-dollar debt owed to 12 complainants who had purchased rooms in the hotel when it was first acquired, with the understanding that the rooms would be rented and a portion of the profits would be paid to them. The hotel has since partially reopened, under a different name.

Another case of interest was the civil battle between residents of Britannia who filed a civil suit against Dart, claiming it had failed to uphold the contracts the homeowners had entered into when they first purchased their properties from a previous company. A decision in this matter is also pending.

Violent crimes

One of the most notable and violent criminal cases that came before the courts in 2020 was that of Elmer Wright, described by the judge as a “ruthless and dangerous” home invader.

Wright was sentenced in February to two life sentences for robbery, theft, attempted burglary, aggravated burglary, possession of an imitation firearm and damage to property. He was tried and convicted in October 2019 for a home invasion during which he and two other men tied up and robbed an elderly couple. When Wright appeared in court, he was escorted by a dozen armed police while the police helicopter hovered above the court building.

He has since been relocated to a maximum-security prison in the UK, after being flagged a high-risk prisoner.

Also in February, a Grand Court jury returned unanimous not guilty verdicts for youth workers Michael Anthony Stewart and Larry Levers. Both men had been charged with manslaughter in relation to the drowning death of Risco Batten, a 14-year-old who died during a fishing excursion from the Bonaventure Boys Home while under the supervision of Stewart and Levers.

On 30 Oct., Olga Elizabeth Smith pleaded guilty to a single count of manslaughter, in relation to the stabbing death of her partner Marvin Connolly, who was found dead in their North Side home on 15 March. Smith has not yet been sentenced.

Extradition battles

Two men wanted in their native countries appeared before Cayman’s courts to fight their respective extradition battles.

The first case was that of Iain Nigel MacKellar, 63, a resident of North Side, who is wanted in the US for allegedly selling counterfeit flea and tick products. In 2019, MacKellar lost his first extradition battle in the Summary Court. He then appealed the decision before the Grand Court, which ruled in April against extraditing him to the US due to his failing health. MacKellar then successfully sued the government for his legal costs in fighting the extradition.

Dario Soldic is also fighting extradition, after being tried in absentia in Croatia for embezzling €130,000 (CI$132,000) and sentenced to a five-year prison term. Soldic made an initial Summary Court appearance in November, where he was remanded into custody.

COVID-19 and the courts

In March, when the first lockdown measures were imposed, the courts were forced, like most other institutions, to shut their doors.

By May, when the restrictions gradually began easing, the courts faced the task of how to provide open justice, while protecting the health and wellbeing of staff, defendants, and the general public.

To ensure social distancing, the courts suspended in-person public viewing of open court matters, replacing it with an online platform where proceedings could be viewed on a screen at Constitution Hall, next door to the courthouse. Other cases were made available, with the permission of the court, via Zoom.

During this time, the court also began hearing curfew breach cases.

COVID cases

In April, the Summary Court imposed a four-month prison sentence for a man who had breached the coronavirus curfew. At the time of the breach, members of the media were not allowed in the courtroom, and the details of the sentencing were relayed to the public by Police Commissioner Derek Byrne, via the then daily press conference.

In November, Canadian couple Pascal Terjanian and Cristina Gurunian, were both fined US$1,000 and banned from returning to Cayman while the borders remained closed. Terjanian and Gurunian both pleaded guilty to breaching Cayman’s COVID-19 suppression regulations.

The most controversial COVID-19-related case was undoubtedly that of Skylar Mack, an 18-year-old pre-med student from the US, who, while visiting Cayman, breached her mandatory isolation to watch her boyfriend Vanjae Ramgeet compete in a jet-ski event. Mack and Ramgeet were each initially ordered to pay $2,600 and to complete 40 hours of community service.

However, that sentence was appealed in Grand Court by the Office of the Department of Public Prosecution, with Justice Roger Chapple setting aside the Summary Court sentence and imposing a four-month prison term.

That custodial sentence was then reduced by half by the Court of Appeal, following an appeal by Mack and Ramgeet.

Mack’s case attracted international headlines, with major news outlets in the US and other countries following the story.

Mack and Ramgeet are expected to be released around 20 Jan., according to their attorney Jonathon Hughes, who said they would have to serve about five weeks in prison or 60% of the total two-month sentence.

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