The recent ceremony opening the new law year marked both the beginning of the annual cycle of justice administration and the waning days of Chief Justice Dame Janice Pereira’s tenure.
The Virgin Islander — the first woman appointed to the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court’s highest post — plans to step down soon.
She can do so with her legacy safely in check.
Appointed in 2012, the Virgin Gordian has helped to modernise the court’s systems, moving away from inefficient paper-based processes to more agile electronic systems such as the e-litigation portal and Zoom hearings.
Last year, Dame Janice also oversaw the revision of one of the ECSC’s key regulations, the Civil Procedure Rules, which had stood since 2000.
Additionally, she guided the court through the Covid-19 pandemic at a time of rising crime across the region, including spikes in serious felonies such as murder and drug trafficking.
The chief justice’s service is also a testament to the important leadership role that many female judges play across the ECSC. She is undoubtedly a role model for young aspiring lawyers around the region.
Still, the beginning of the new law year is also a good time to reflect on what remains unfinished to improve the justice system in the Virgin Islands and other eastern Caribbean states.
During similar annual ceremonies in the 1960s and 1970s in years when no murder trials occurred in the territory, the VI attorney general would present the presiding judge a pair of white gloves in commemoration of a peaceful year. Sadly, those days are long gone, as evidenced by the grim statistic of the six homicides recorded in the VI last year.
Meanwhile, amid egregious delays in this territory’s courts, far too many accused are spending much too long — often years — on remand at His Majesty’s Prison, which remains inadequately staffed.
And more than six years after the devastating 2017 hurricanes hit the VI, some of the territory’s courts still operate in small and inadequate temporary facilities. The long-promised Halls of Justice project, which would include multiple courtrooms to handle the VI’s growing case backlog, has yet to break ground.
In her speech to open the new law year this month, Dame Janice noted challenges with court facilities across the region and called for governments to do better.
She also advised the ECSC to implement “a harmonised and comprehensive set of rules” to govern procedures in the region’s criminal courts. This is a sensible and much-needed step that could cut case backlogs and speed up the pace of justice.
It should be accompanied by comprehensive case-management reforms carried out through the close collaboration of prosecutors, defence attorneys and the courts.
Dame Janice can conclude her two decades as a judge proud of what she has accomplished, but there is much left to be done to create a more just court system for all.
Her successor must carry forward her legacy.