27 Apr Covid-19: What to expect for ongoing and new court matters?
This post was first published on 27 April, 2020 and was last updated on 16 May, 2020 to reflect the Covid-19 Emergency Practice Directions issued on 15 May 2020 in Gazette No. 71. These Practice Directions have extended the suspension until 15 June, 2020 (inclusive) of the following:
directions and deadlines, unless specifically addressed, save and except in matters that have been deemed ft for hearing during the period 16 March, 2020 to 15 June, 2020 and the court has directed that time is to run during this period and the payment of maintenance under any order of the court including an order under the Attachment of Earnings Act;
filings save for filings in urgent matters, matters that may become statute barred during the period 16 March, 2020 to 15 June, 2020 or matters deemed fit for hearing during this period; and
hearings in most courts save where matters are deemed fit for hearing.
The May 15 Practice Directions supersede the Practice Directions published in Gazette No. 57 issued on 27 April, 2020.
There are many words which can be used to describe the Novel Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, but among those, the words fluid and dynamic resonate. The economic, political and social climates continue to change as a result of the coronavirus and it is nearly impossible to predict with certainty what the future holds. The coronavirus has no doubt impacted on the way persons interact with each other and how business is conducted. Many institutions have put measures in place to ensure business continuity such as ‘work-from-home’, restrictions on in-person meetings and increased use of online platforms for interactions. The Judiciary of Trinidad and Tobago (the ‘Judiciary’), is one of these institutions which has had to adapt to the challenges posed by the coronavirus. The Judiciary has implemented measures to ensure continued access to the judicial system while at the same time maintain the health and safety of court staff and the general public.
The Judiciary has discouraged all in-person appearances until the 18th May 2020 (inclusive) and instead encouraged the use of telephonic or video technology for all hearings. Where a hearing must take place in court, attendance in courtrooms is limited to attorneys, parties and necessary witnesses as the court may instruct.
Sittings in most courts have been suspended until 18th May 2020, save where matters are deemed fit for hearing. Generally, the matters which are deemed fit for hearing differ from court to court but as it relates to civil proceedings in the High Court, matters under the Anti-Terrorism and Mental Health Acts and applications for writs and habeas corpus are deemed fit for hearing.
The Court may on its own motion deem a matter to be fit for hearing or any party to an action or intended action may apply to the Court to have a matter deemed fit for hearing. An application by a party must be made in writing to the Registrar of the Supreme Court or to the Magistracy Registrar and Clerk of the Court in the case of a District or Summary Court matter. Further, the application must be accompanied by an affidavit setting out the facts and reasons which make the matter fit for hearing. With respect to the Court, it shall deem fit for hearing until 18th May 2020, any matter which it intends to proceed with during this period and shall give directions as to the time and filings.
Certain matters are expressly deemed not fit for hearing such as:
- all matters in the Summary Courts (including traffic matters) which have been adjourned for three (3) months from the date on which it was to be heard; and
- payment of all fines (including traffic matters) which has been extended for three (3) months from the date on which payment is due.
As such, if you have an ongoing matter for which a hearing is scheduled on or before 18th May 2020, this matter will be adjourned to a later date unless it is deemed fit for hearing. Provided it has been adjourned, a new date for the adjourned hearing will be provided by the court, though there is the possibility that further delays may occur if the court’s guidelines are extended beyond the 18th May 2020.
The Judiciary has taken steps to facilitate electronic hearings, which can include teleconference, video-link or any other manner of instant communication. The court may at its own instance or upon the application by a party, consider and/or fix a hearing of a matter to take place by electronic means. It is possible for an attorney/party to apply to the court for a matter to be dealt with other than be electronic means for certain specified reasons, one of them being where the attorney/party has no access to a specific electronic means.
Where the court fixes a hearing by electronic means, the court office will notify the parties of:
- the date and time of the hearing;
- the specific electronic means to be utilized;
- the telephone number and/or email address for the designated officer;
- the telephone numbers and/or email addresses for the parties; and
- any other pertinent information.
If a hearing is scheduled to take place by electronic means, the hearing shall be conducted as though the attorneys and/or parties are physically present in court. This would include ensuring that:
- documents, persons, equipment and information technology support are available;
- all persons are attired in a manner appropriate for court; and
- court protocols are observed.
Notably, attorneys and parties are not allowed to record a hearing being conducted by electronic means.
As it relates to the filing of court documents, the timeline for filings have been suspended until 18th May 2020 save for filings in urgent matters, matters that may become statute barred or matters deemed fit for hearing during. Generally, for all deadlines or directions not specifically addressed in the Practice Directions, time will cease to run until 18th May 2020 save and except in matters that have been deemed fit for hearing during this period and the court has directed that time is to run and documents are to be filed and the payment of maintenance under any order of the court including an order under the Attachment of Earnings Act.
This is effectively a pause on the time such that if a document is due to be filed at any time from 16th March 2020 to 18th 2020, filing will not be permitted unless it falls into one of the categories expressed above. This will no doubt cause delays in the case management process. For new matters, filings will not be permitted save where it is urgent, such as where it may become statute barred during this period. Attorneys are to file all documents by electronic means until 18th May 2020.
With respect to probate and administration of estates, an attorney who has received an approval for filing, may file the approved new application on the appointment date set by the Registrar and with effect from 04th May 2020, may lodge new applications at the Probate Registry using the Judiciary’s E-Probate Portal. Other rules have also been established in relation to probate and administration of estates which attorneys and parties should become familiar with.
The Judiciary has created an e-filing system to facilitate the filing of documents in civil proceedings by electronic means. It is hoped that this will allow the case flow management and enable cost effective and expeditious means of dealing with cases. Attorneys may file documents in civil proceedings on behalf of the party for whom they are on record or which have the effect of placing the attorney on record through the use of the e-filing system.
There are certain requirements for the labelling and filing of documents using the e-system which attorneys should familiarise themselves with.
A document filed by electronic means is deemed to be filed at the date and time when:
- The document is submitted by electronic means and received by the court office;
- The filing fee (where applicable) is received by the court office; and
- A copy of the submitted document bearing the stamp and where applicable, the seal of the court is transmitted to the filing attorney.
As such, any impending deadlines should be carefully considered when determining whether to file by electronic means to prevent against any issues relating to the date and time of filing.
It is possible to file an emergency application at any time by electronic means but it must be accompanied by a Certificate of Urgency. Emergency applications include applications for interim injunctive relief or such categories which the Honourable Chief Justice directs are to be treated as emergency applications.
As the coronavirus continues to unfold, organisations and institutions like the Judiciary will have to continuously re-evaluate its measures to adapt to the complex and evolving environment. Parties to ongoing or to potentially new matters should therefore be mindful of the new rules and systems of operations implemented by the Judiciary since it is uncertain how long institutions, like the Judiciary, will continue to operate in a limited capacity and with limited resources and how long this may be the ‘new normal’.