Perhaps no other judicial appointment in the history of independent Belize has generated so much controversy as that of Justice of Appeal (JA) Samuel Lungole Awich, who was elevated from the Supreme Court bench two years ago when he reached the retirement age of 65.
At the time of his appointment to the Court of Appeal, however, there was a challenge from BCB Holdings, an Ashcroft-affiliated company which had a number of cases before Justice Awich when he was a Supreme Court judge.
Arguments over JA Awich’s appointment concluded today in the Supreme Court of Justice Courtney Abel, who told the parties that he will deliver his judgment by the end of July, “if not before,” adding humorously, “lest I be accused of excessive delays in delivering judgments.”
Ironically, the case has concluded not long after JA Awich’s two-year contract was recently extended for another eight years, an appointment that has pitted the Government of Prime Minister Dean O. Barrow against the Bar Association.
Before Justice Abel, the government’s Senior Crown Counsel from the Solicitor General’s office, Trenia Young, squared off with attorney Godfrey Smith, SC, who represented Dean Boyce and BCB Holdings.
In winding down her submission, Young argued that “The lack of ability on the part of Justice Awich, as is expressed by the claimant Dean Boyce, is not sufficient to warrant the referral (Belize Advisory Council) of the matter of Awich’s appointment.”
Young submitted that the question of the judge’s acumen would not arise, because he would be sitting in a panel of judges which is controlled by the president of the Court of Appeal.
“When Justice Awich sat as the Acting Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, there was never any complaint made about him to the Legal Services and Judicial Commission. His acumen must be taken in totality and not with regard to any specific judgment,” Young told the court.
Justice Abel asked what was before the Legal Services and Judicial Commission for them to consider, and in reply Smith mentioned all the cases from the appellate court to which he had referred, the Prime Minister’s letter, the Bar Association resolution, and the Mayan King Caribbean Court of Justice judgment.
Smith added: “The more we probe, the more we find withering criticism about his capability as a judge.”
Outside the courtroom, Smith explained to reporters what the case is all about.
“This is a challenge to a decision of the Judicial and Legal Services Commission. In 2012 a complaint was made to the Judicial and Legal Services Commission about Justice Awich. The complaint was that the Judicial and Legal Services Commission ought to exercise its powers under the Belize Constitution to consider whether there was a sufficiently serious allegation of misbehavior and/or inability against Justice Awich,” Smith said.
Smith said that if the Judicial and Legal Services Commission found that there was a sufficiently serious case made out, the matter should be referred to the Belize Advisory Council, who would then investigate whether the judge ought to be removed.
“The Judicial and Legal Services Commission did not refer the complaint. It in effect dismissed the complaint and said the complaint was premature and misconceived because it raised complaints against the judge while he was a Supreme Court judge, and he was now a Court of Appeal judge,” Smith said.
“We have sought to challenge that by bringing a public law action saying that the Judicial and Legal Services Commission got it wrong, that there are certain tests to be applied, that once there is a sufficiently serious material before the Commission, then it ought to refer it. It’s not the Commission’s job to determine whether the complaint is true or not. Once there is sufficient material then it ought to refer the complaint,” Smith went on to explain.
“We pointed out in this case that there were a number of judgments from the Court of Appeal in which judgments of Justice Awich were criticized in a severe manner and that, along with everything else, along with the Bar’s resolution, constituted sufficient material for there to be a further investigation as to whether the conduct complained of amounted to inability or misbehavior”, Smith declared.