The V.I. Senate Committee on Rules and the Judiciary advanced legislation during Tuesday’s hearing that, if signed into law, would grant the elderly and the terminally ill expedient court proceedings so they can seek justice before death and help curb a “tremendous backlog” of court cases.
The legislation would allow any elderly or terminally ill individual to petition for preference, said Sen. Janelle Sarauw, the bill’s sponsor.
“People should not be dying waiting to settle a civil matter,” she said.
Civil cases across the nation take too long to resolve, according to Troy de Chabert-Schuster, state director of the AARP in the Virgin Islands. The nation’s average length of time for the disposition of a civil case is over 90 days, but in the U.S. Virgin Islands it’s a lot longer than that.
“It is our understanding that in the Virgin Islands, civil cases can take upwards of five years to resolve,” de Chabert-Schuster said. “This delay of justice lessens access to economic opportunities for the plaintiffs and works against their access to justice.”
For more than two years, de Chabert-Schuster said the U.S. Virgin Islands has reported 302 cases pending decisions.
“This mounting backlog of pending civil cases in the judicial system requires strong consideration of this bill, which provides a mechanism to accelerate the process for the elderly and terminally ill citizens and lessens the impact of delayed judgment,” he said.
Sarauw said the judicial system must maintain a level of accountability by recognizing the substantial backlog of court cases and how that poses an issue for the elderly and sick. “It’s not fair to those who are waiting for justice to be served … justice delayed is justice denied.”
According to the proposed legislation, if an elderly individual is granted their motion for preference, the court must set the trial date within 180 days from the time the motion was made. Similarly, if someone is terminally ill and is granted a motion for preference, the court will have to set the trial date no more than 90 days from the date the individual’s motion was made.
These deadlines help ensure that these cases have a greater likelihood of being heard, because when this is not done, these matters then enter probate, Sarauw said.
The legislation garnered strong support from the attending committee members who ultimately voted to approve the legislation and forward it to the full body for final review.
“This bill will serve to change the quality of life for the elderly and terminally ill by giving them an opportunity to bear witness to the timeless symbol of justice while they are alive,” de Chabert-Schuster said.
In other action, the committee advanced three additional bills, an act allowing the lieutenant governor to collect unpaid property taxes and public sewer fees when a delinquent taxpayer sells property, the Virgin Islands Timeshare Act, and an act to restore an eight percent reduction in government employee salaries.
Sens. Novelle Francis Jr., Franklin Johnson, Carla Joseph, Milton Potter, and Genevieve Whitaker were present for the hearing. Sens. Steven Payne Sr. and Kenneth Gittens were absent. Additional non-committee members also attended the hearing.