Chief Justice of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court Dame Janice Pereira opens the new law year virtually once more. A ceremony was scheduled to take place in the Virgin Islands this year, but it was cancelled due the continuing high number of Covid-19 cases. (Screenshot: UWI TV/FACEBOOK)

Dame Janice Pereira, who is starting her 10th and final year of serving as chief justice of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court, virtually opened a new law year on Jan. 11 by explaining how two years of operating in a pandemic has transformed the way courts operate.

The Virgin Islander promised that a new phase of rolling out digital court proceedings will be a priority this year.

“Crises should never be viewed as all bad,” Dame Janice said in her 2022 address. “It is in such times that our most creative and imaginative thoughts lead to positive action. Over the last year, the court moved from simply managing the Covid-19 pandemic to developing new and innovative ways of improving the justice system as a whole in light of the deficiencies laid bare by the pandemic.”

During last year’s address, Dame Janice commended courts for how they used technology to shift operations online during the pandemic but noted a backlog in jury trials after in-person proceedings were put on hold.

On Jan. 11, she described how changes made last year helped create a more dynamic service for delivering justice.

“The court, and all of us along with it, was pushed into survival mode, requiring it to transform its operations at an even faster pace,” she said. “In just over the past year, we have seen the use of digital platforms and other innovations becoming significant and essential features of our court system.”

As courts go through this “welcomed” change, Dame Janice said it is important to plan ahead for the next five and 10 years.

Looking ahead

Dame Janice anticipated digitally driven courts will likely remain critical to the administration of justice even after the pandemic. Ideally, she said, the change will help make courts more accessible and efficient than ever.

At the appellate level, 419 appeals were filed in 2020, according to the chief justice. The court heard 351 across four sittings, dealt with a further 437 matters in chamber hearings, and delivered 66 written judgements and 258 oral decisions, she added.

“These figures are on par with the pre-pandemic data from 2019,” Dame Janice said.

She added that this progress was made possible through practitioners and litigants embracing the use of electronic litigation portals and other technology.

The ECSC hit a milestone last year when all nine member states got on board with using an online portal, and she said the second phase of using this technology is starting this year. This includes expanding the types of matters that can be filed and managed in the portal, including high court, family and criminal cases.

Matters filed through magistrates’ courts will also be able to be processed through the portal, she said. Accompanying rules for electronic filing, serving and hearings are being drafted.

VI ceremony cancelled

Though member state St. Vincent and the Grenadines had planned to host a special sitting featuring the 2021 address, the ceremony was cancelled due to safety concerns.

This year’s commemoration followed suit as Covid-19 cases continue to rise worldwide, with a daily average of 2.58 million cases reported by The New York Times on Jan. 10.

“This year’s ceremonial opening of the law year was slated to take place in the beautiful territory of the Virgin Islands,” Dame Janice said. “I was looking forward, with much anticipation, to returning to my homeland for this occasion — and because it is the last occasion on which I shall enjoy the honour of doing so as your chief justice. But here we are, almost two years later, still within the grip of the pandemic.”