The Re-Opening of the Supreme Court took place this morning. The event marks the end of the Supreme Court vacations, which lasts from the entire month of August until today. During the vacations, only criminal matters and civil cases of an urgent nature are heard.
As is customary, the ceremony starts with a church service, this year this took place at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. The theme of the church service was that the Judiciary is a servant of the people. Thereafter the judges, magistrates, court officers, attorneys, other court advocates and staff proceed to the Supreme Court premises in conjunction with the National Brass Band. At the Supreme Court, as is customary, the Chief Justice then delivers an address to mark the occasion.
To start off his address, Chief Justice Egonda-Ntende stated that the problems with the judiciary were far worse than what he had thought when he made his address a year ago, back then, he had been the Chief Justice for only 3 weeks. Although he insinuated that the problems with the judiciary will require more time to be dealt with, he stated that things are improving. In particular, after reciting a handful of statistics on cases being disposed of, he remarked that in the past year, far more cases were being disposed of compared to the previous years. However, he stated that there is still a backlog of cases dating from the year 2000 and that this was unacceptable. He stressed that judges will prioritize older cases and partially heard cases in order to deal with this. He also mentioned that the hearing of cases should take place in consecutive days until disposed of, and if not possible, then they should be adjourned to a date not too far in the future. He also mentioned that judges will reserve a particular half-day from their weekly schedules to deal with motions, petitions, interlocutory matters not expected to last more than half an hour each. This will free up the court's time to deal with the hearings/trials as scheduled.
As part of his continuing reforms, he mentioned that new sets of audio recording equipment were brought in to the Supreme Court late in 2009 and that the new equipment has been functional since March 2010. And that this has helped improve the speed in which transcripts can be typed and produced in written form to the public.
He also mentioned that he expects the construction work on the new Supreme Court Building at Ile du Port, sponsored by the Chinese Government, which will house the Seychelles Court of Appeal and Supreme Court, to commence shortly. Mention was also made of the construction of 4 more court rooms in the current vicinity of the Supreme Court. He also mentioned that new Magistrates would have to be sourced from abroad given that there appears to be a lack of interest from the local attorneys, and that it will take at least 7 years before the University of Seychelles can produce a Magistrate (3 year law degree, 1 year for the bar exams, 2 years pupillage and there is a policy that Magistrates should have at least 1 year of practice as an attorney). He stated that he expects to double the number of Magistrates from 4 to 8 within the next 2 years. With regards to the jurisdiction of the Magistrates' Courts, he mentioned that the law will have to be amended to increase the monetary jurisdiction of the Magistrates. Currently, Magistrates may entertain claims up to SR 25,000 (around USD 2,000) in value. Above that and claims must be filed before the Supreme Court, even the most simplest and basic debt cases. The Chief Justice proposed that Magistrates be able to hear claims of up to SR 250,000 (around USD 20,000) and that Senior Magistrates hear claims of up to SR 350,000 (about USD 30,000) in value. This will alleviate the workload of the Supreme Court.
Mention was made of the creation of a High Level Committee with the judiciary and various stakeholder as a forum for other bodies to be able to communicate their concerns and suggestions directly to the judiciary. The Chief Justice also stated that he has had several meetings with the Bar Association and that he shall continue to consult with members of the legal profession.
The Chief Justice also stated that several laws were made in a bygone era and need to be revised. He mentioned that the Civil Procedure Code will have to be revised. He also mentioned that decisions of the superior courts are now available online and that a volume of law reports from 1991 to 1996 will be published shortly. He mentioned that another volume for cases from 1997 to 2010 is in the works.
The Chief Justice also mentioned the setting of time standards for the disposal of cases. Standards that the judges will seek to enforce. For example, he mentioned that civil cases must be disposed of within 24 months from the date of filing, and the criminal cases must be disposed of within 12 months from the date of filing. Shorter time frames were given for interlocutory motions and petitions for judicial review.
Thereafter those present were invited to refreshments. Many in the profession agreed that the rate of cases being disposed of has improved tremendously, but it will take a while longer to clear the massive backlog. Many believe that Chief Justice Egonda-Ntende is on the right track. But there was concern on the separating of the physical locations of the Magistrates Courts from the Supreme Courts and whether by increasing the monetary jurisdiction of the Magistrates to such a high amount, this would eventually clog up the Magistrates' Courts.
At the start of his address the Chief Justice made an analogy that if the judiciary had been a medical patient, that in the past year, under his stewardship, it had survived from the Intensive Care Unit. Of course, this does not mean that it has been released from the ICU.
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