Judge Stephenson, centre front; Registrar Ossie Walsh,right front, Police Commissioner Carbon and members of the Dominica Bar
Judge Stephenson, centre front; Registrar Ossie Walsh,right front, Police Commissioner Carbon and members of the Dominica Bar

Lawyers here say the the lack of a fully functional court system in Dominica nine months after Hurricane Maria is extremely frustrating.

The Dominica Bar Association (DBA) wrote to the Minister of Justice Rayburn Blackmore about the situation and at a press conference he held along with the Registrar Ossie Walsh, Blackmore said the Civil Division of the High Court would have been operational in May 2018.

But to date the criminal section is still closed and the civil division is yet to find a proper place for holding court sessions.

Mary Roberts, the President of the DBA, has noted that the May deadline given for the court to reopen has passed.

"We are now in June and the situation remains the same," she said. "We are frustrated since it is clear that the full functioning of the court is not a priority for the powers that be. It is critical to get the court fully functional. It's now a crisis situation".

Roberts added: "As the Bar Association, we have written to the relevant authorities, we have staged a walk. We are fed up and the building although covered is leaking. The time for doing something has come and gone; we are now nine months after Hurricane Maria…I am not at all surprised at what is going on, the building is not ready and everyone is passing the buck."

Another lawyer, Tiyani Behanzin, a former Magistrate now in private practice here said the current situation of the court affects everybody.

"The High Court Criminal Division is still in a total mess, windows blown off are yet to be repaired; we also have leaks in parts of the building. I attended the Magistrates Court several times when it was raining my feet went into several puddles of water right outside the court. They are also trying to place the Civil Court downstairs in a small cubicle. The Law Library suffered lots of damage…the books are all in a mess. The Judge sits in the Jury room. It's just disgraceful. Those people on remand waiting for trial are innocent until proven guilty; they have been charged but not been convicted of anything; they are still innocent; they need to be released on bail. It's a constitutional breach, and this is just unfair," he said.

Another lawyer, Darius Jones said: "It's really sad. Yes, the court took a direct hit from the Hurricane but not much effort has been made to put something in place in the interim".

He continued: "Soon I expect people on remand awaiting trial to seek further redress. It's almost one year since the passage of Hurricane Maria and nothing is happening...when you have no information it's as painful as being given a long court date.

"People who are in custody and have appealed will be released and their matter not heard. If the matter goes to the court of appeal and they win, what happens since they would have served their prison time?

"I have a matter on appeal since 2013 and my client is still in custody, it was up for hearing so what happens then? It creates a level of restlessness when you go to see people at the prison. Some dates need to be given, people must speak and not leave us hanging. There are places in Dominica where high court criminal sessions can be held," Jones said.

Attorney-at-law Chelsea Frampton, an executive member of the DBA, said the Chief Justice is aware of the situation.

"Our next move is to write directly to her on the matter. She is the overall head and we need her intervention, we have a draft copy of a letter.

"There has been some disconnect, I am frustrated. You have to have law and order; you have people on remand. The Judge has tried her best working under trying circumstances and I don't agree with the conditions under which she is working.

"Now I am hearing about the Halls of Justice again; they have a committee in place looking at the matter. I don't have a clue when court will resume fully. Lawyers are frustrated and have clients who are seeking justice."