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Duke shuts down Sando court

...Unfit for occupation
Published: 
Wednesday, August 6, 2014
PSA president Watson Duke addresses workers of the San Fernando Magistrates Court at Harris Promenade, San Fernando, during yesterday’s walkout. PHOTO: TONY HOWELL

After years of promises that conditions at the San Fernando Magistrates Court would improve, the majority of administration staff, led by Public Services Association (PSA) president Watson Duke, walked off the job yesterday . In an immediate response, the Judiciary described the action as unfortunate, but said the work of the court was unaffected.

Some 30 staff members walked out around 11 am after being addressed twice by Duke, first in one of the courtrooms and then on Harris Promenade. As a result, cash transactions were affected, but the magistrates dealt with cases in the First and Fourth courtrooms. Less than three weeks ago, attorney Ainsley Lucky complained to Deputy Chief Magistrate Mark Wellington about the dilapidated condition of the court building and called on Duke to intervene. 

During the meeting with Duke in the Second Court, a member of the Judiciary tried to encourage the staff to stay on the job, but was met with stiff resistance. The staff said they were fed up because their complaints had fallen on deaf ears for far too long. In an interview with reporters after addressing the workers, Duke said they would not return until the building was officially deemed safe for occupation.

“We have received incessant calls from San Fernando Magistrates Court and eventually, having spoken to my brother Ainsley Lucky and the workers here, I am here today to put an end to this blanket of ignorance that has been poised upon the workers.” He said he came to educate them on their fundamental right to protect themselves, and under Section 15 of the OSH Act they had the right to refuse work if their safety were at risk. He said the entire court operation would be affected.

“Notwithstanding what the workers would have done this morning, we expect to bring a court action against this court for having workers in a building without a valid fire certificate, which is a criminal offence.” Duke said he was appalled by what he saw during his brief tour of the courthouse, which included mouldy carpets, dirty windows, mosquitoes, a collapsing ceiling, asbestos, outdated fire extinguishers, no escape plans and a tarpaulin on the roof.

“We were actually in courtroom number two, where we conducted our meeting, for about 10-15 minutes, and there the room was extremely hot. There were about four or five fans inside there. There was a stench inside there that to me befits that of slaves,” he claimed. He said the court building looked abandoned. “Clearly, the colour resembles that of a cemetery, a graveyard, white and grey.” He promised that the PSA would “break the cycle of slavery” in the Public Service. 

Duke said he would be serving the Chief Inspector (of OSH Agency) with a document, after which under the law he had 24 hours to visit and inspect the building. Duke was not allowed to enter the cellblock where the prisoners were kept, but he called on the officers’ representative to stand up for them. He said he overheard officers complaining about inhumane conditions and a mosquito infestation. 

Lawyer grateful
Expressing gratitude to Duke for heeding his call, Lucky said he decided to take a stand after he noticed the deterioration of the courthouse over the years. Chiding his legal colleagues for not standing up with him, he said: “Since the initial announcement that I was asking Mr Duke to intervene, not too many members of the Judiciary lent their verbal or their physical support. I am the only lawyer here right now. That is bad, that is extremely bad.”

Despite this, Lucky said, he would continue to fight and called on the State to move with haste to improve conditions there. 

Judiciary: plans to move court
The Judiciary, in a statement, reiterated the issues were insignificant and of long standing at San Fernando, but plans were afoot to move the court operations to another site in about 12 months. “The retrofitting of this building, given a court's unique needs,” it said, “should be completed in 12 months with work commencing in October. “We have in the interim instituted some small fixes to address the operations at the existing court and to guarantee safety while also trying as much as possible to limit the inconvenience to users.”

While that work is being completed, the Judiciary said, it was seeking the kind understanding and co-operation of the members of the public and staff. The Judiciary said the staff would be kept abreast of the situation as work progressed, and the Department of Court Administration was working “assiduously” to address any new concerns raised by staff and other users.