Cayman’s courts continue to be plagued by a backlog of cases and a lack of courtrooms, which is now jeopardising the rights of many defendants to have their cases heard in a prompt and timely manner, Chief Justice Anthony Smellie said at Wednesday’s official opening of Grand Court.
Addressing a noticeably less-packed courtroom, due to ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, Smellie said the number of indictments carried forward by the Grand Court’s criminal division had decreased to 88 cases compared to the more than 130 carried forward from 2019 to 2020. However, the Summary Court had seen more than 1,100 cases carried forward.
“This backlog is not because of a lack of judicial capacity, and not because of a lack of judicial counsel; if it were, this could easily be resolved,” said Smellie, who firmly blamed the backlog of cases on a shortage of courtrooms.
Among the backlog are nearly two dozen individuals who remain in custody pending the hearing of their cases. Smellie said at least nine of those have been in custody so long that the time elapsed bordered on infringing their right to have a trial in a timely manner.
He added that defendants in at least 22 of these cases “remain in custody pending trial for very serious matters”.
“One defendant has been in custody since 2017, although now awaiting a retrial. This falls well below the international standard of six months,” he said.
A shortage of courtrooms has been an issue for many years. The acquisition of the former Scotia Bank building was expected to help remedy that shortage; however, Smellie said this solution would take several more months and would not address the immediate need.
“I was informed that the work on two additional courtrooms, which would require internal renovations, cannot begin until summer at the earliest, and I stress, at the earliest,” said Smellie, adding that he believed finding a solution ought to be a priority for the government in 2021.
Along with their push to unclog the court’s criminal registry, Smellie also announced the courts’ renewed commitment to go paperless.
“This very morning, the pilot project for [an electronic file management system] which was announced last year, will take effect,” said Smellie.
Once the new system has passed the initial pilot stages, Smellie said, members of the legal profession will be given access to it, and it will eventually be opened to the general public.
“Kiosk machines will be placed in the general public areas of the courthouse, so that people who do not have access to computers will be able to access these new services,” said Smellie.