Three days after it was announced that the island’s Supreme Court would be closed indefinitely on account of environmental problems, Chief Justice Sir Marston Gibson today announced a partial re-opening of the court.
While conceding that investigations had revealed the presence of mould, dust mites and other allergens that had also impacted the health of those using the building, Sir Marston informed reporters during a news conference held inside the judges’ lounge of the White Park Road Complex that despite the closure announcement made by Registrar Barbara Cooke-Alleyne on Tuesday, hearings were still being held in a “remediated” section of the court complex.
“They have not [stopped], I assure you,” Sir Marston boldly declared, adding that “the courts have continued to work and hearings have continued only in those spaces in the building which have been remediated to date.
“This is done in an effort not to further compromise the health of staff members, attorneys at law, and members of the public, while the judiciary continued to execute its constitutional functions and duties,” said Sir Marston, who was flanked by the Registrar and other senior court officers.
Today, Cooke-Alleyne also announced that workers from the Registration Department would be returning to the building on Monday.
However, both the Barbados Bar Association (BBA) and the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW) are hopping mad over the latest move, complaining that it was not discussed with them and ran contrary to Tuesday’s agreement, which was reached during a meeting involving both the Chief Justice and the Registrar.
“I appreciate that the CJ would feel the need to ensure business continuity [but] I just thought there was a strategic plan already decided in relation to how that would take place.
“This announcement was slightly different from that plan. I would have thought that if continuing sittings in the remediated parts of the Supreme Court side of the building was an option that it would have been presented at [Tuesday’s] meeting . . . so that everybody would be aware that there were spaces in the court not as great or not at all a health risk for any of the users of that particular space, that it would be okay for them to operate in those spaces,” said Liesel Weekes, president of the Bar.
She therefore said she was preparing to dispatch a letter to the Chief Justice seeking clarity on the matter before putting the matter to her membership.
However, an upset NUPW President Akanni McDowall said his union was advising its members not to return to the building.
“We had an agreement that the only persons that would occupy that building would be the Registrar and Deputy Registrar for a period of time. At the time of the meeting, the situation was so dire, I remember we agreed that the files would be moved immediately and that the staff would be relocated,” McDowall told Barbados TODAY, while stressing the need for them to be consulted on any changes.
“We have not been consulted and there was no meeting to my knowledge, subsequent to the last one that we had [on Tuesday]. Therefore, we are advising our members not to return to that building until we have given the go ahead. Again, I am going to repeat it. We are advising all of our members not to return to that building until the union has given the go ahead,” the NUPW president emphasized.
During today’s news conference, the Chief Justice acknowledged the concern of some members of the non-judicial staff to re-enter the building until remediation is completed to satisfactorily scientific standards.
However, he assured that “the remediation is ongoing and will continue until completion”.
While highlighting the critical function of the judiciary, he also stressed the need for continuity.
“To this end, several of our courts, both the Court of Appeal and the high courts have continued to conduct trials, hearings and other matters at the judicial centre.
“The position taken by the judiciary is not to be interpreted as forcing any member of staff who feels imperiled by entering the building to do so,” he stressed, while pointing out that the judges had assumed responsibility for the administrative functions normally carried out by the clerks of the courts.
He thanked the public and lawyers for their patience and understanding in “these trying times” and promised that all stakeholders would be informed by the Registrar as to the precise dates and times when business would start at the temporary locations.
Meanwhile, Cooke-Alleyne reported that following a meeting this morning with staff of her department, they had agreed to return to the court complex.
“They are concerned about the public needs that we satisfy . . . the service that we provide for them being in abeyance. So they have agreed to come back into the building and work for shorter hours to satisfy the public needs, be it the Records Department, Probate and Foreclosure in the High Court as well,” she said, adding that the working hours, as agreed by the Head of the Civil Service, were from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., starting on Monday.
However, she said that in the interim the Registration Department would be closed at 12.30 p.m. to allow staff and management to clean up their desks and to prepare for the next day.
Referring to a previous announcement that the neighbouring CLICO building would be used as a temporary relocation facility, Cooke-Alleyne said as the time drew near for that move, her department would have to be closed for about four days to facilitate packing up for the transition.
Three days ago, Cooke-Alleyne had announced plans to retrofit the CLICO building at White Park to accommodate the courts within the next two weeks.
She had also said that in the interim, the Registration Department would operate from the Ministry of Home Affairs, while the criminal court would be held at the new Cane Garden Complex in St Thomas.
The Registrar had also said that four civil courts would operate from the Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Centre, while juvenile matters would be heard at the District ‘A’ Magistrates’ Court.
“I can’t give you a timeframe but we are hoping that it is going to be a short period of time, a literal couple of months, at most three, for us to be back in this building. The staff realized that their health is important to us, so they realize that we are doing what is best for them while ensuring that justice continues to be served,” Cooke-Alleyne had stated, while acknowledging that the move was expected to result in further setbacks to the already backlogged court system.