I had noticed the judges and jurors, but I missed an important part of an English court. Where were the gentlemen of the bar? Some of my readers will perhaps concur with Captain Hampton’s observation that Belize was the last place made, when I tell them that there was not a single lawyer in the place and never had been. Lest some of my enterprising professional brethren should forthwith be tempted to pack their trunks for a descent upon the exempt city, I consider it my duty to add that I do not believe there is the least chance for any.
As there is no bar to prepare men for the bench, the judges, of course, were not lawyers. Of the five then sitting, two were merchants, one a mahogany cutter, and the mulatto, second to none of the others in character or qualifications, a doctor. This court is the highest tribunal for the trial of civil causes, and has jurisdiction of all amounts above 15 pounds. Belize is a place of large commercial transactions; contracts are daily made and broken, or misunderstood, which require the intervention of some proper tribunal to interpret and compel their fulfillment. There was no absence of litigation, the calendar was large, and the courtroom crowded.
I remarked that regularly the merits of the case were so clearly brought out that when it was committed to the jury there was no question about the verdict. So satisfactory has this system proved that, although an appeal lies to the Queen in Council, as Mr. Evans, the foreman, told me, but one cause has been carried up in twenty-two years. Still, it stands as an anomaly in the history of English jurisprudence for, I believe, in every other place where the principles of common law govern, the learning of the bench and the ingenuity of the bar are considered necessary to elicit the truth.
– pgs. 10, 11, INCIDENTS OF TRAVEL IN CENTRAL AMERICA, CHIAPAS, AND YUCATAN (1839-1840), by John L. Stephens, Rutgers University Press, 1949
The administration of justice was tight in colonial British Honduras. There was never any doubt in the mind of a witness who testified in a Supreme Court trial that he or she was safe, protected by the power of the colonial government.
When it came to the republics immediately around us — Mexico to the north, Guatemala to the west, and Honduras in the south, our grandparents and great grandparents were convinced that their justice systems were inferior, at times actually haphazard. In more remote communities in these republics, the people were known to take the law into their own hands on occasion. In fact, we know such community justice is still the order of the day sometimes in Guatemala, and, we suspect, in Mexico and Honduras.
There was no community justice or vigilante justice in British Honduras in the twentieth century. Way back in the nineteenth century, justice was dispensed by an established team of magistrates. There were no attorneys in the settlement of Belize in the nineteenth century. But, justice was organized, never spontaneous or gratuitous. We are not saying colonial justice was fair. There were laws on the books which were discriminatory and oppressive, in the first instance. But, we are saying justice was organized.
We do not know when the first Supreme Court, as such, was established in British Honduras. As a matter of fact, we believe (and we stand to be corrected) that the first attorneys in the colony were all foreigners of some kind of British Commonwealth origin. Remember, there was no University of the West Indies to train Belizean attorneys until the middle of the twentieth century. Before that, such natives as Sir Woolrich Harrison Courtenay, Belize’s first Speaker of the House, had to travel to England in steamships to study to be attorneys and be admitted to the bar in the late 1930s.
The uneducated masses in Belize were filled with admiration for our first native attorneys. It seemed to our people that it was a kind of magic the lawyers performed. If you committed a crime, and if you had the money to pay for attorneys, they would enter the court in their wigs and gowns and make your crime disappear. Not guilty! The uneducated masses in Belize took a long time to understand that in the world of the law, the facts and the arguments were different things. The facts supplied the foundation of the case, but in the world of the law it was the arguments which enjoyed priority. It was the arguments which made the magic.
After World War II and the historic independence of India in 1947, British colonies (like British Honduras) all over the British Empire began to agitate for self-rule and independence. Thus was born the anti-colonial People’s United Party (PUP) in 1950 in Belize. But, there were some natives in British Honduras who admired the discipline and efficiency of the British and were, at the same time, intimidated by the power of the British Empire. In 1951, such natives organized an opposition to the PUP called the National Party (NP). In 1958, the National Party became the National Independence Party (NIP), and then in 1973, the NIP became the United Democratic Party (UDP). Neither the NP, the NIP, or the UDP ever won a national election until December of 1984.
The masses of the Belizean people held our nationalist politicians in very high esteem. It is impossible to say whether the Belizean masses held native attorneys or PUP leaders in higher esteem. There were no attorneys who were PUP leaders until Vernon Harrison Courtenay and Joseph Grey became PUP general election candidates in 1969. The art of politics involved image making public relations, subterfuge, and rhetoric. And, the art of politics was similar to the legal profession, because it involved argument.
During the 1970s and 1980s in Belize, a relatively large amount of Belizeans qualified as attorneys and began to practice law in Belize. Most of these new attorneys were trained at the UWI’s Norman Manley School of Law, many of them entered politics, and a few of the more enlightened, more pragmatic ones began to cooperate across PUP/UDP party lines. In the middle of these two decades of attorney plethora, so to speak, political independence finally arrived for Belize in September of 1981.
It may be that, with the coming of independence, the most critical power which native political leaders acquired from the British colonial masters was power over the administration of justice. This was not supposed to be, because the judiciary was supposed to be separate and distinct from the executive and the legislature, which were the purviews of the elected politicians. But the reality became that, to be a practicing attorney and to be also in the Cabinet or inside the halls of power of the ruling party, meant immunity from prosecution, because after independence the native executive began to grind the police under their heels, and the police were the first line, an indispensable line, of the administration of justice.
A couple months ago one of these newspaper’s editorials referred to the police as part of the judiciary. Snobbish elements amongst the attorneys took issue with this, because the lawyers in Belize think they are better, socially speaking, than the police. And, in fact, they are, especially when they, the attorneys, are “mobbed up” with the ruling party, but there is no administration of criminal justice without the police: in that sense, the judiciary actually begins with the police.
The politically connected attorneys who became untouchable and invulnerable after independence began to attack jurors with bribes. This was the thin edge of the wedge where the corruption of Belize’s judiciary was concerned. The juries began to crack. Attorneys who were not politically connected began to exploit those cracks for which their politically connected colleagues were responsible. Remember, attorney cooperation across party political lines began just before independence and began to flourish after 1981. The law in Belize is now like a closed shop, like a cartel. “You pays your money, and you wins your case.”
When judges first started to become corrupt in Belize and accept payments from attorneys for favorable judgments, it is impossible to say. But after independence, the judges followed the juries: some became corrupt. The fact of the matter is that they were suborned by the attorneys, primarily the politically connected ones. We are saying that in Belize, the marriage between politics and the law had seriously negative implications for our administration of justice.
To be a witness in a murder trial in Belize in September of 2017 is to fear for one’s life, absolutely. This is because the overall system of justice is so corrupt that our society cannot assure protection for witnesses in the Supreme Court. It is repeatedly said, where there is no justice, there is no peace. Belize is one of the most violent countries in the world because we have one of the most rotten administrations of justice in the world.
At the very top of the political executive in Belize sits one of the most glib of Belizean attorneys ever. Our Maximum Leader can take the facts, as presented to you by institutions professionally established to present the truth, and twist and turn these facts with arguments until stone truth turns into jelly doubt. This is the legal profession at work: when facts meet arguments, it is the arguments which are triumphant. Things are hunky dory in Belize. Politics and law: UDP all the way.
The problem is: how do you feed, clothe, house and educate the people with arguments? Politics married to law has no serious interest in societal socio-economics. Politics married to law is all about power and money and vanity. Politics married to law is all about buildings and infrastructure. Where there is no love, the people perish. Those with eyes to see, let them see.
Power to the people.