Features — 30 September 2017 — by Hector Guerra
Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied

1.The above quote was taken from the Court of Appeal decision of Abraham Teck v Keila Teck in which Blackman JA delivered the leading judgment. Frankly, the case involved an appeal of both custody and maintenance orders made in favor of the respondent mother by Benjamin CJ on November 13, 2012.The case was fairly routine. Unbelievably, at the time of the hearing of the appeal there was no written judgment forthcoming from Benjamin CJ even though three years had elapsed from the date when the orders were given.

2.This abject state of affairs has prompted my necessity to write. The written judgment is the foundation upon which the common law has developed; the medium through which judges express their decision and provide the legal rational underlying such decisions.

3.The written judgment promotes public confidence in the judiciary’s ability to resolve conflicts and provides an understanding into what the law is so as to enable citizens to adapt their behavior accordingly. The accessibility of written judgments is therefore important in educating the population as to what the law is.

4.Indeed it is for these reasons that a Judgeship is one of the most constitutionally protected jobs and why Judges enjoy security of tenure. Judges must be able to uphold the rights of citizens by passing judgment without fear or favor. Judges through the written judgment act as guardians of justice.

“[10] Regrettably, although more than three years has elapsed since the Order of November 13, 2012, there has been no written decision by the learned Chief Justice to enable this Court, and more importantly, the parties, to understand the rationale underpinning the several orders listed above.”

5. Judges are expected to work tirelessly in pursuit of delivering judgments in a timely manner given that litigants have a constitutional right to have their disputes resolved within a reasonable time as per Section 5(5) of the Belize Constitution.

6.This was acknowledge as far back as the 17th century when Francis Bacon on becoming Lord Chancellor of England in March 1617 remarked ,”Because justice is a sacred thing and the end for which I am called to this place and therefore is my way to heaven. I shall by the grace of God add the afternoon to the forenoon, and some fourth night of the vacation to the term, for the expediting and clearing of the causes of the court.”

7.The recent circumstances surrounding Benjamin CJ is a sad state of affairs in this fledging democracy called Belize. Records show that over 27 cases are pending judgment and of the 27 cases 20 are over five years old. The delivery of judgments is of paramount importance given that it aids in the development of a local jurisprudence which reflects the needs of its people. Business and commerce all depend on legal certainty and the quick resolution of disputes whenever they arise. It is not acceptable for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Belize to take in some instances, over five years to deliver judgment. In an interview with a local news station, Madam President of the Bar Association, Ms. Priscilla Banner noted that in at least one of the cases awaiting judgment, the litigant has died.

8.Even more disheartening is that the problem now surrounding the Chief Justice seems to have haunted him before. In Citco Banking Corporation -v- Pussers Limited, an Appeal to the Privy Council, emanating from the British Virgin Islands, the Privy Council made the following scathing remarks of the trial judge who was none other than Benjamin J at page 317:

“Benjamin J. heard evidence and arguments over five days towards the end of June, 1998, and reserved his judgment, saying that he would give it before the end of July. In fact, he gave it on the 7th April, 2003, nearly five years later. The judgment as delivered offers the parties no explanation for the delay and their Lordships understand that the Judge is no longer serving in the British Virgin Islands but their Lordships feel bound to observe that such delays are completely unacceptable. Besides being a violation of the constitutional rights of the parties to a determination of their dispute within reasonable time, they are likely to be detrimental to the interests of the British Virgin Islands as a financial centre which can offer investors efficient and impartial justice.”

9.The Caribbean Court of Justice, the highest court of Belize in the case of Reid v Reid has stated that unless a case involves unusual complexity, no judgment should be pending for more that six months and that in the normal course of affairs judgments should be delivered within the span of three months.

10.The necessity for prompt written judgment is important. Delays cause people to endure a prolonged and painful wait for justice, and in the most extreme cases, some never receive it, as litigants/attorneys and their families have, in the past, died in the interim. Businesses that depend on the resolution of their disputes fail and prisoners on remand suffer unfairly at the expense of the judiciary in a country where individuals are innocent until proven guilty.

11.In light of the above the Bar Association’s recent resolution is welcomed. The Chief Justice must be made to stand by his word and his schedule for the delivery of judgment or else he must resign. The Hon. Kenneth Benjamin CJ as the head of the judiciary is where the buck stops. He must be held accountable or else who is to say that other Judges won’t follow suit.

12.Perhaps time is ripe for the consideration of legislation that would see a definitive time frame set within which judgments must be delivered. In 2009 the Government of Guayana facing similar challenges with the judiciary’s perennial delay in the delivery of judgments passed the Time Limit for Judicial Decisions Act.

13.Such legislation could be bolstered by a Constitutional Amendment that would see the Constitution expressly providing that a Justice of the Supreme Court may be removed from office for persistently not writing or failing to give decisions.

14.Litigants ought not have to wait prolonged periods for a resolution to their disputes to be forthcoming. Judges are held in high regards by society for a reason. They are expected to be diligent and efficient in delivering justice.

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Eden Cruz

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