Levers grilled over allegations

| 15/05/2009

(CNS): Facing Timothy Otty QC acting on behalf of the tribunal, Justice Priya Levers was grilled for some six hours yesterday (14 May) over the language and gestures she had used in her court room, as well as her criticisms of the Chief Justice and her other colleagues. Denying she had fallen short of the high standards expected of a judge, she admitted that in some cases she may have been over zealous. As Otty quizzed her word by word on the sample transcripts that he said had caused the chief justice concern, Levers sought to explain the circumstances and her choice of words in each case.

During the day’s questioning Levers revealed that she first became aware of the complaints when Chief Justice Anthony Smellie called her on 24 May 2008 to tell her he was sending over some material which he wanted her to calmly consider over the weekend. She said that he did not tell her what it was and they did not discuss it until the following Monday, but when she opened it and saw what it was she was very upset and afraid. She said it appeared that he believed she had a mindset of bias based on the allegations, without having discussed any of them with her.

Otty began his examination of the case against Levers by drawing her attention to the concerns that Smellie had outlined in that memo. He suggested that the transcript revealed she was biased against Jamaicans, hostile to women and may have influenced juries in favour of defendants through various means, including inappropriate comments or gestures, by making crown counsel look incompetent or by guiding them in her summing up against the victims.

He began by questioning her about comments she made about other judges during a trial at which the difficulty of listings had arisen and the pressures in the court house were given as the reason. Levers had, according to the transcripts, said that she did not understand the pressures giventhat half the judges were walking around the court drinking coffee. Otty suggested that it was an inappropriate remark to make about judicial colleagues in open court.

However, Levers, denied that it was and explained the remark. At the time, she said, she was upset, having just asked another judge to sit for her one afternoon while she took dialysis but that judge had said no as he was going scuba diving. She said she thought the chief justice had accepted her apology for saying those words and had understood it was a reaction to her being upset after she had been looking for assistance from her colleague who had refused.

Citing another example, Otty said she had made comment that had been perceived to be rude about judges not liking to sit on Friday afternoons, although she did not mind. Levers explained it was a universal observation about all judges, and because it was one of the afternoons where she did not have dialysis she was happy to sit. He then moved to complaints about the language she used in court during criminal cases, as recorded in the transcripts taken to the chief justice by the stenographer Karen Myren.

Otty took Levers through seven cases where the chief justice had suggested she used inappropriate language or behaviour. In one sentencing hearing, Otty suggested the transcript demonstrated a bias on her part against Jamaicans based on the fact she had asked irrelevant questions about the nationalities of the witnesses as well as the defendants. Levers said she was trying to get a full picture of the circumstances of everyone involved as the victim had been in a relationship with the defendant. When asked if she felt her questions could give rise to perceptions of bias against Jamaicans, Levers said, “…it would not cross my mind. I am Jamaican, my husband is Jamaican and my children are Jamaican.”

Otty then suggested the CJ had been very disturbed by her asking about the pending Caymanian status application and the moral character of the victim, and pressed her as to why she asked the questions. Levers said again she was trying to establish a full picture of a dysfunctional situation and she felt she had already reassured the CJ that she would no longer ask those kinds of questions. On reflection she should not have asked them, she said, but she did not believe they showed bias.

Levers was then questioned on the case where crown counsel had complained that the judge had gone to the scene of the crime before consulting with the attorneys involved and then raised a defence of planting that the defence itself had not. Levers explained her reasons for going there and the possible defence that was overlooked and denied that it was unconventional . “I visited the house as I did not know the area and the house had been described as being on stilts. I wanted to see it for myself before deciding to take the jury there.” Otty said she had been accused of inferring to the jury later in her summing up that a gun could have been planted. Although it was established she had not used the word "plant" in her description of the search, it was claimed by crown counsel that she alluded to a plant thereby influencing the jury, which she denied.

In another criminal case she was also accused of failing to present a balanced case in the summing up, saying the only way a jury could find the defendant guilty was if they were very, very sure of a point, and she admitted it was a possible misdirection.

Otty moved to another case where the judge had made comment on the lifestyle of a young victim in a defilement case and said the chief justice was concerned that it was irrelevant, but Levers insisted it was regarding context.

He then pointed to three other cases where she had given a more lenient sentence to a man than to two women accused of the same crime. Levers explained that in the case of the man there were mitigating circumstances.

Pressing her further on her exact wording and her intention, Otty took her through other cases where the chief justice had been concerned about her rolling her eyes or gesturing inappropriately, making jurors laugh or being disparaging to female victims, all of which she denied.

She also denied having said that she could not have done any more to help one defendant to court reporter Carol Rouse, who had accused her of a very biased summing up and then bragging about it. When it came to accusations from the same reporter made against her about gestures, she denied those too and said she could not think of any reason why she would say these things but that there had been other witness statements stating she did not. “All I can do is present the facts and call as many corroborating witness as I can,” she said. “I can not imagine why other people recall things differently from her.”

Moving through the complaints regarding the family courts, Levers denied the allegations in all cases, and as Otty went through complaints line by line about gestures or exact words that she had used, the judge sought to place the accusations in context or explain misperceptions. It had, however, been revealed earlier in the week that each of the four complaints from family court had come from litigants dissatisfied with the outcome of their cases.

As the day drew to a close, Otty raised her alleged criticisms of the chief justice recorded by her former secretary Elizabeth Webb. The tribunal’s QC questioned her about private correspondence including her last wishes in which, he said, she had been less than complimentary about another judge. She revealed that she did believe that Justice Dale Sanderson was hostile to her but not the chief justice.  She noted that when it came to her funeral she was able to decide who she liked. She went on to say that it was unreasonable to use her private correspondence to friends, written when she was upset about the chief justice’s memo, as an example of criticism.

Answering accusations made in Webb’s statement about her speaking critically of her judicial colleagues, she asked Otty to be more specific about what she had supposedly said as it was difficult for her to answer such a general question. “It is very difficult unless I know what I am supposed to have said,” Levers added. “Such carte blanche allegations are so easy to make and so difficult for me to respond to.”

Justice Levers also categorically denied consulting a phsychic or a card reader or believing in them.

Otty is scheduled to continue his questioning tomorrow before Levers own QC, Stanley Brodie cross examines. The summing up statements on behalf of both the tribunal and Levers will be made on Monday before the fact finding element of the tribunal closes.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    We are all glued to CNS for up-to-the-minute news of the Lever’s Tribunal. Wendy Ledger is the only reporter on staff in Grand Cayman – give her a minute to catch her breath please. CNS is on top of all current news stories and keeps Cayman informed with news as it happens. Keep up the good work CNS and I hope that when all the political ads are pulled from your site that the public will see the value of your service and support your efforts.

  2. Anonymous says:

    If  Justice Priya Levers is found guilty, is there the possibility that cases which she presided over can be challenged?

  3. TEAM CAYMAN says:

    Would someone please tell me, why is the court staff  behaving like little kids?  Get a life people and grow up!

  4. Anonymous says:

    Why no reporting about what Desmond Seales said in the Tribunal?

    CNS: Wendy is working as hard as she can on this. Check back later.