‘Crisis’ situation at St. John’s Magistrates Court

Steadroy Cutie Benjamin (file photo)

Staff at the St. John’s Magistrates’ Court have complained that working conditions have reached “crisis” level, as they lament the badly leaking roof and mould in the building. “We have a crisis in the Magistrates’ courts. The main building is leaking badly and has mould. The workers, through the union, are threatening to strike. The PS for legal [affairs] has instructed us to only work half day until we get to another building,” one worker noted yesterday.

This week, the court has been sitting for half a day, but it was only Friday morning that a notice was posted at the entrance of the building located on High and Temple streets. The notice reads, “Seasons greetings and a Happy New Year. Due to certain circumstances beyond our control the Magistrates Court closes at 12 PM daily until further notice. Therefore, the civil cases sitting before Chief Magistrate Jo-Ann Walsh will be given further adjournment dates. Please contact the court for further information.” And it ends with a quote, “If you do not like where you are, move, you are not a tree.”

The temporary measure is not sitting well with the workers who said even if it’s for half a day, the conditions under which they are working are unacceptable. The staff said they were told to exercise patience but, according to them, the shortened days and poor conditions will significantly impact the operations of the four functioning courtrooms, cashier stations, and storage and evidence rooms, among other things.

One senior member of staff said the problem has been ongoing for over four years and is not being treated with any sense of urgency. “There does not seem to be any urgency to resolve the impasse which affects the four out of five courts … the public needs to know sooner rather than later as it affects everything. Although the family court is separate, payments are disbursed from the cashier at the main office,” the worker noted. That employee said that the prime minister and Ministry of Legal affairs are aware of the issues plaguing the building which was renovated and opened as a court in March 2007 after the former court building had to be abandoned due to similar poor conditions in addition to an infestation of rodents and other pests.

According to that worker, the reduced operational hours will also affect the public as it relates to payments for bail, the number of cases that can be heard and other court related matters. The employee pointed out that the sitting of traffic court would be impacted since this is done in the afternoon by one of the magistrates who also sits in the morning and who, under the new working hours, would not be able to do a full day’s work. The workers are predicting crippling effects and extra pressure on them when a backlog of cases occurs.

The Minister of Legal Affairs, Steadroy Benjamin, who spoke with OBSERVER media from London yesterday, said the “regrettable” issues will be addressed shortly. “In fact, those conditions were in place since 2010 when I was practising as a lawyer. There were occasions when the tiles from the floor were off when the leaks of the roof existed. This is not something of recent vintage. When our government assumed power we addressed the problem as best we could at that time.

Repairs were done admittedly, but they were not sufficient,” he said. Benjamin said that the Minister of Public Works, Lennox Weston recently gave an assurance that contracts would be given out to have the roof repaired along with all the other problems at the building. The minister thanked the staff for “working very hard for very long” and he said when he returns to Antigua on Monday, he will speak with Weston to get an update on the plans to fix the court.