The circumstances leading up to the remand of a small business couple for 25 days at Dodds to await their sentence for breaching the COVID-19 rules was described by a magistrate Wednesday as an anomaly that should go before a constitutional court.
Magistrate Elwood Watts made the suggestion after shopkeeping couple Emma Ann Abrahim and Churaman Veerandra appeared before him.
They pleaded guilty previously to the February 8 charge of contravening the Emergency Management (COVID-19) (CURFEW) (NO.3) Directive for failing to keep their store, Aaron’s Fruit and Vegetable Mini Mart closed during the nationwide lockdown. They were remanded pending sentence.
When the couple appeared at the St Matthias District Magistrates’ Court, lawyers Michael Lashley QC, Dr Lenda Blackman, Simon Clarke, Seantelle Parris and Sade Harris told the court that the two were unrepresented at the time of their remand. They were granted bail by the High Court after spending 25 days on remand following an application by Lashley’s team.
They then reappeared before Chief Magistrate Ian Weekes who had first heard their case where they were expected to be sentenced but instead they made a request, through their attorneys, to change their plea to not guilty.
The case was transferred to Magistrate Watts who now has the responsibility to hear all COVID-19 cases.
Lashley spoke of the confusion in the court on the couple’s first appearance. He explained that the COVID Monitoring Unit who appeared on the first court date overstepped its powers in prosecuting the minimart owners.
“Our information is that the… COVID unit gave the full facts to the Chief Magistrate,” Lashley told Magistrate Watts, arguing that the coronavirus watchdog was not vested with prosecutorial powers. The duty of reading the facts of the case, he said, should have been done by the Crown prosecutor.
“In any guilty plea, based on the procedure, it is the prosecutor who then reads out the facts, not the COVID monitoring unit masquerading as a prosecutor. It is our submissions that also would have tainted the whole proceedings,” Lashley argued. He said this was one of the reasons why he went before the Chief Magistrate to ask for a plea of not guilty to be entertained.
Lashley also explained that during their first appearance his clients were unrepresented and confused.
“They were confused and dragged away from their business place to court on the same day they were served….before they got a chance to call a lawyer,” Lashley said, adding that usually when a summons is served there is a seven-day grace period for the person to appear.
“I find it strange,” he told the court. “I have never seen anything like this. They weren’t flight risks, have been farmers for years; what was the rush?”
The court then addressed the fact that the two were on remand for 25 days pending sentencing.
The magistrate queried: “If these persons were remanded in custody for 25 days, a guilty plea having been entered, what are you telling me now about a not guilty plea being entertained after someone spent 25 days in custody pending sentence and the matter is here?”
Watts said he didn’t see how the granting of Lashley’s application would help the couple.
“How can you cure 25 days in jail? if it is an anomaly that puts you there, you should be in a constitutional court. Those are issues that create a different sort of redress,” the District ‘C’ Magistrate suggested.
Principal Crown Counsel Krystal Delaney
is expected to respond to the submissions on April 9.
The defence team has signalled its intention to file a constitutional motion on behalf of the shopkeepers.