Presiding Judge of the Virgin Islands Superior Court Rhys S. Hodge addressed the quarterly meeting of the Virgin Islands Bar Association on Thursday, September 21st in the District Court of the Virgin Islands jury room. Judge Hodge noted that the VI Superior Court would be moving the court into the "technology age".
He said he supports the ongoing effort of the Court Administrator to implement a computerized case management system and has established a date certain, the first quarter of 2007, to have the public access module available online. There was some discussion amongst the members of the Virgin Islands Bar as to the implementation of e-filing and the necessity of training and double-tier system for attorneys who were not techologically savvy. The public module would allow the public access to the court’s calendar as well as court records.
Hodge, who is a former President fo the Virgin Islands Bar Association, noted that the VI Superior Court’s budge included funds to refurbish at least one courtroom in St. Thomas and another on St. Croix that a fully electronically automated.
There will also be an effort to have hearings conducted in St. John utilizing a videoconference facility. "This will eliminate police officers and other St. John residents from having to travel to St. Thomas," Hodge told the attorneys.
Hodge also addressed the issue of appointed counsel for indignent defense matters. This has been a long standing point of contention with members of the Virgin Islands Bar Association, both as to the low amount of reimbursement, as well as the qualification of some attorneys to handle complex criminal matters.
The Presiding Judge has advocated for an increase in funding for the payment of attorneys in indigent defense matters. Currently, attorneys are paid $45 per hour for out of court work and $65 per hour for time they spend on such cases in the courtroom. The Federal courts pay attorneys $90 per hour for work on appointed cases. Hodge said the Superior Court is prepared to match the amount paid by the federal courts.
Hodge noted that he hopes to implement a indigent defense system similar to that of the sister territory of Guam. "There will be a four-tiered system," he said. "First – indigent defense matters will be assigned to the Territorial Public Defender. If there is a conflict, a second public defender’s office will be established to handle such matters. If there is yet a conflict, the indigent defense matters will be forwarded to a volunteer panel of private attorneys. The increase in pay to attorneys should generate enough attorneys to handle matters. If all of the first three avenues are precluded, then and only then would the Court resort to appointed private counsel."
A final matter that came up at the meeting was the slow process of the probate court. Virgin Islands Bar Association President Joycelyn Hewlett stated that the VI Bar Association’s Legislation and Law Reform Committee would be looking at the Uniform Probate Code to address this matter. Judge Hodge noted that St. Croix Judge Patricia Steel and her clerks has been reviewing the same legislation and he hope that it would address some of the Bar’s concerns.