As with so many areas in our Territory, Hurricanes Irma and Maria had a significant impact on the judicial system of the Virgin Islands, leaving all of the key properties required for the effective functioning of the system extensively damaged. The effective operation of the judicial system is central to maintaining the rule of law in the Territory which is why Cabinet approved the re-establishment of all of the Courts as part of the short-term recovery priorities. Over the past five months, a tremendous amount of work has been undertaken to have the Courts up and running in the shortest timeframe possible. I now take this time to update you on the progress and plans, which will mean that all Courts are functional over the next few weeks.
The Magistrate’s Court commenced hearings for arrest matters on September22nd, 2017, at the Road Town Police Station. Two additional venues have now been declared as Magistrate’s Courts – the Ritter and Quastisky Buildings. This coming Monday, 19thFebruary, the first Magistrate’s Court hearings for traffic, civil and quasi matters will commence.
Meanwhile, the United Kingdom Government is funding the construction of a temporary Magistrate’s courtroom which, once complete, will be used whilst extensive reconstruction of the Magistrate’s Court at John’s Hole is undertaken. This will be funded through the Caribbean Development Bank(CDB) Rapid Recovery loan. To address the more immediate needs of re-establishing the Criminal Court, the House of Assembly has graciously agreed to share their Chamber so that the Magistrate’s Court can resume on February20.
In order to facilitate prisoners on remand awaiting trial to attend criminal proceedings, the House of Assembly passed the Audio Visual Link Act 2017 which will allow prisoners to attend court proceedings from their location at Her Majesty’s Prison. This is a welcome innovation in the Territory’s judicial system and will ensure a more efficient handling of criminal matters in both the Magistrate’s Court and the High Court. A further update will be given on the commencement of this process.
Court facilities on Virgin Gorda have also been damaged. We have sought to identify a suitable place to resume their Magistrate’s Court sittings, but while we await the renovations to the Administration Building through the CDB loan, I appreciate the continued patience of our Virgin Gorda residents who have matters before the Courts. In the interim, the Magistrate’s Court will seek to hear matters on Tortola for Virgin Gorda residents who are currently on remand at Her Majesty’s Prison.
High Court sitting in its Criminal, Civil and Commercial Jurisdictions and the Court of Appeal
Due to a myriad of challenges following the hurricanes, it was not feasible to conduct High Court hearings of the sitting in its Criminal, Civil and Commercial Jurisdictions in the Territory. Following consultations with stakeholders, provisions were therefore made to conduct as many hearings as possible remotely.
Commercial and Civil Court hearings were conducted in St. Lucia from September to December. The Civil Court also worked via videolink from St Lucia, enabling the disposition of a number of critical cases.
In November, the Court of Appeal was also able to hold its normal scheduled sitting for the Virgin Islands, again from St Lucia.
I am incredibly grateful for the support of St Lucia and the Joint Legal Services Commission for their huge support to enable the continued business of these Courts with minimal interruption.
As we have progressed, and following the return of a number of our judges, sittings for the Commercial Court are now taking place at the International Arbitration Centre ahead of the completion of renovations at the Commercial Court which are progressing well.
Similarly, full sittings of the Civil Court have recently resumed at Sakal Place. And a new High Court Judge is expected to join us in the Virgin Islands later this week, which will allow us to resume consideration of criminal matters in the High Court in the coming weeks. Finally, I am pleased to note that the Court of Appeal is scheduled for the week beginning February26.
As we eagerly look forward to the full functionality of our Courts, I wish to thank all of the persons in the public and private sector who have contributed their time and resources to enable us to get to this point. I would like to thank particularly the private donors, contractors and public officers who have brought us to this point. I would also like to thank members of the public and the legal profession for their patience as we continue to work to re-establish services.
We have accomplished much in the past five months, but there is still a lot of work to be done to bring the judiciary to a fully functional state. With the dedication and tenacity that I have seen displayed thus far, like the rest of the Territory, I am confident that we are on the road to building the judiciary, stronger, better, smarter and greener.