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Chief Justice Benjamin highlights need for criminal justice reform

BELIZE CITY, Mon. Jan. 11, 2016–The traditional opening of the Supreme Court began this morning with a church ceremony at the Holy Redeemer Cathedral. Following the service, the traditional march of members of the judiciary and the legal profession passed through the downtown area, ending in front of the main Supreme Court building, where Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin inspected a police guard of honor, before he addressed the bench and bar in his packed courtroom.

The Chief Justice underscored the dire need for criminal justice reform, noting that the situation worsened in 2015.

“As of December 31, 2015, there are 403 persons on remand at the Belize Central Prison. That is an increase over the remand population at the end of 2014. Of that number, 118 are awaiting trial at the Supreme Court, predominantly for the offense of murder,” Benjamin said, adding that 27 persons have been on remand for over 5 years.

In the Civil Division of the Supreme Court, there were a total of 806 cases filed in 2015, while 334 divorce petitions were received for filing and 309 defended and undefended divorce decrees were granted.

Benjamin said that mediation as an alternative mode to settle disputes has become an integral part of the legal landscape and that a total of 115 cases have been referred by judges for mediation since the inception of the program.

In 2015, 45 cases were referred to mediation and of that number 13 were settled, while 15 were not settled and 15 remain pending to be brought forward to 2016.

The National Mediation Committee, which is a volunteer committee chaired by Justice Courtney Abel, is now tasked with extending mediation to the Magistrate’s and Family Courts.

In his remarks, Benjamin congratulated the newly appointed Attorney General, Vanessa Retreage, on her elevation to the high office and said that the Supreme Court stands ready and willing to give its support to the Attorney General for the advancement of justice in Belize, while preserving the constitutionally guaranteed independence of the Judiciary.

Chief Justice Benjamin noted that in 2015, the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) sat in Belize for the first time, since the Caribbean Court of Justice Act was brought into effect in 2010, as it “convened in this very court to hear appeals from Belize and other jurisdictions.”

Benjamin said that for the fiscal year 2015-16, the Judiciary received $8,910,559 from the national budget.

“Compared to other previous allocations, this represents a percentage reduction of 1.02 percent, but [it] represents an aggregate increase in dollar amount of $198,155,” the Chief Justice said.

He added that, “The upholding of the rule of law never comes cheap and must never be stultified by inadequacy of funds.”

Retreage expressed the hope that the allocation would be reconsidered for the next budget, due to take effect in April.

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