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Sep 30, 2002

Magistrate’s Court crippled by fire

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The damage occasioned by Sunday’s fire will be felt first and foremost by those people involved with proceedings in Magistrate’s Court. With all six courtrooms and related offices totally destroyed, the wheels of justice, never too swift in the best of times, may grind to a temporary halt. Speaking to the press this morning, Attorney General Godfrey Smith, accompanied by Chief Magistrate Herbert Lord, addressed some specific issues resulting from the fire. According to Smith, all the court’s physical case files–those pending and those closed–have been destroyed. However, all the key information relating to the criminal cases was stored on a computer server and backed up on diskettes at a safe location. This means that, along with the police files, it will be possible to reconstruct all criminal cases. The main problem will come with criminal cases already underway. Because the notes of evidence were destroyed, those cases will have to be heard again from the start. On the civil side of the court docket, the situation is less ambiguous. All the civil case records were destroyed and were not backed up electronically. This means that anyone who had a civil lawsuit in progress in Magistrate’s Court will have to re-file their case. If this sounds like a bonanza of business for lawyers, Smith sounded a note of caution.

Godfrey Smith, Attorney General

“There is a thinking throughout the Caribbean region, and this is backed up by statements from other Chief Justices in the region, that a large portion of these cases that are taken to court should really be settled out of court. The actual fact is that a small percentage of the cases when they are actually called up, do actually come up for trial. The word I would say is that if we are to attempt all cooperate in keeping the system intact, I think lawyers and their clients should really take a hard look at their cases and try to come to a settlement out of court as much as possible.”

“The opportunity to rebuild, if we are to use it properly, must take into consideration possibilities of fire, electronic systems, back-up systems that are stored outside of the actual premises of the courts. I think what this does is to present an opportunity to put world standard systems in place to make sure that if there is a disaster, whether hurricane or fire, that materials are stored in alternative formats and in alternative cases. So certainly it presents that opportunity to do it properly.”

One thing that was apparently done properly is that all land titles that were put up as security for defendants on bail were stored in a fire proof safe. Smith said it appears that the safe is intact, but at the time of the press conference the safe had not yet been opened, nor the condition of its contents confirmed. He also announced that all persons who are scheduled to appear in Magistrate’s Court this week must report to a temporary facility located in the compound of the Eastern Division police station on Queen Street. Even though the cases in question may not be tried this week, it is important that people know the date that they will eventually be heard. A hotline has been established to answer any questions. That number is 227-6370.

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