I think one of the rudest, more cruel realities I had to face at law school was to realize that law was not about the ideals of truth and fairness, but rather about who could present the best evidence, had the most knowledge of the law and their rights, and who could influence the decision-maker, be it lawfully or unlawfully.
I had opted to go study law after myself being dragged before the courts umpteen times and in circumstances where to my entire being it felt unjust and unfair. Yet I was legally trained to find the provisions and appreciate the nuances as to why I was right about the injustices being exercised against me. My ordeals with the courts in Belize were at their worst between 1998 and 2000, when I was a Senator for the United Democratic Party, then in opposition after suffering a massive and crippling defeat when the People’s United Party won by an impressive landslide.
I on principle could not align myself with the PUP campaign, because I knew VAT was not a killer as their slogan said, and more importantly I knew that there was no way they could repeal VAT and suffer a 60 million dollars plus tax-revenue shortfall with having to eventually find how to bring back that tax to save the economy. Thus GST was born and the political gimmicks continued. It was against that background that I found myself aligning with a political party and experiencing the abuse of the courts to destroy me as an advocate and opponent of the then Musa administration. I could write lots about the politics, but this piece is to share my experience before the Family Court and even the Magistrate’s Court and to speak first hand of the level of injustice one not schooled in the law must live with. And it is my sacred duty to write about this topic because I’m now schooled in the law and I still see these injustices taking place in many courts, but especially the Family Court.
Created by statute
If we would only teach our children the basic structure of our legal system, the procedures before the courts and their rights under our laws, those who suffer out of ignorance of the law and the system, would be fewer. However, I am convinced that the system is designed to keep the ignorant even more ignorant and to serve the interests of those in the privileged position, be it by money, name, statute, or politics.
It is important for Belizeans to know that our lowest court is the Magistrate’s Court, of which the Family Court is just one specialized court. Then the next in line ascending, is the Supreme Court, which has what we call inherent jurisdiction, meaning it is entrusted with unlimited power to hear all sorts of cases and it is where ground-breaking precedents start. Clearly it is superior to the Magistrate’s Court, which is a court that is limited in the powers it can exercise, and the only power it can exercise is that given to it by statute. This simply means that the law spells out clearly what a Magistrate’s Court can do or cannot do.
Above the Supreme Court is the Court of Appeal that hears only appeals from the Supreme Court. This means that it does not have trial of any matter, but rather after a trial at the Supreme Court, where a litigant is not satisfied, that litigant can appeal to the Court of Appeal, which based on the evidence represented below will review how said case below was done and see if there is any legal or factual basis to affirm or reverse the verdict or decision.
Then there is the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) that replaced the Privy Council as our final court of appeal and where any decision made becomes final. The role of this Court is very much the same as that of the Court of Appeal, as it just another appeal court, but it is the HIGHEST appellate court of the country. It too does not have proceedings as if trial, but rather has a hearing to examine whether the decisions made by the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court were rightly made. It can either affirm the decision of the Court of Appeal or can quash it, but similar to the Court of Appeal, it will not be hearing evidence all over; rather it reviews what happened at the Supreme Court by the transcripts of that Court and it reviews also what happened at the Court of Appeal by the transcripts, the legal arguments of both sides and the decision given in writing by the judges.
So readers must learn that there are only two courts where there is an actual trial with witnesses called and evidence presented: the Magistrate’s Court and the Supreme Court. And remember, the Magistrate Court’s can only try cases that some statute empowers it to do, while the Supreme Court has unlimited power by virtue of the Common Law legal system we inherited from our British colonizers!
The abuse I lived
I was no stranger to the Family Court, having had to access it to obtain a protection order after fleeing from a very physically and psychotically abusive relationship in 1994. Abuse has a very strong hold on an abused person and the abuser doesn’t like to be called out. Some twenty-three years later the abuser still hates to be called out… but I am entitled to speak my truth, even if it’s your truth that you want to hide!
However, what was amazing to me about my entire ordeal was the fact that I had to endure further abuse at the hands of the Belize Family Court and the abuses senior attorneys practice, or incompetent magistrates allow and the political motives that operate, as in my case. I speak of first-hand experience when I now write about how I had to further endure outright abuse while seeking to access justice at the Family Court.
I can write of several cases but will write about the one in which I felt the most violation and now know that I was right. Something was wrong with what they did me! I had previously retained the services of the firm of Lois Young Barrow and was represented by her brother, who had recently graduated from Norman Manley Law School. However before my cases could be committed he had to leave the jurisdiction, so the chambers he represented sent me back my file and told me they could not continue to act as the legal representative on my behalf. However, lo and behold, at the next court date, who shows up at court for the other side? Yes, no other than the head of that law chambers, Lois Young-Barrow. I felt it totally wrong that the same firm, albeit a different attorney, could now be against me after previously representing me in the Family Court on the issue of access and visitation by the child’s father.
Now, I was being dragged back to court for breach of that order and the same law chambers that was once representing me was against me. Hmmm, I felt totally wronged then and I felt violated, betrayed, sold-out and disrespected. However, the charade continued as I will explain shortly, but as I too became a student of the law, in my Ethics class I learned that no firm, chambers, or sole practitioner should ever do what was done to me. It was against the ethics of the profession and there were actual laws, principles and ethics against such conduct. Sadly, because I did not know better at the time I had to face the reality that opposing me was the firm that previously represented me. Now I know that such scenario could only occur if the firm is so big that one attorney could never know what the other attorney from the same firm is doing and/or the management set up what in law is called a “Chinese-wall,” which is a check and balance system to ensure that the attorneys of the firm could never know of or have access to the work or documents of the case from the other attorneys in the same firm.
To be continued in the Tuesday, January 30 issue of the Amandala