The recent telethon helping to fund the outstanding legal costs of Lucilo Teck is a worthwhile effort, and has made a fair amount of exposure in the media. However, the larger, more important question has not been raised by anyone. And that question is: are the legal costs in Belize preventing justice being served, not just in the civil court, which seems to be extremely busy in recent years with dispute after dispute going to court, the majority of cases involving GOB to some degree, but also in the criminal courts?
I know of one student in the last year of high school who cannot even apply for bail because her family cannot afford the legal costs of even the cheapest lawyer (that sentence doesn’t read right – “cheap” and “lawyer” aren’t naturally associated with each other!).
To underline the huge chasm between “real life” and the legal profession, the high profile quote from Denys Barrow regarding his rate, and that of other senior lawyers, charging $1,000 an hour equates to over 300 hours at the minimum wage. That’s more than 37 days (8-hour-day) and more than 7.5 weeks! (5-day week). This is at the extreme end of one of the most important issues facing Belizeans – inequality, but that’s a topic for another day.
In the annual Supreme Court Opening on the 11th January, two quotes caught my attention: the CJ said “…the judiciary is by no means exempt from rendering accountability to the citizens of Belize,” and Jacqueline Marshalleck, President of the Bar Association, invited us to “..discard the view…” that “…the opening is nothing more than an opportunity for judges and attorneys to dress up and show off…”.
Well, I would ask her and the CJ to prove to the public that those same judges and attorneys are still in touch with the needs of the people they serve (and those needs are more important now than at any other time, with crime being such a problem), which is to make justice more accessible, to make it quicker to judgment (see the Amandala, issue 2958, page 1, “1,443 in prison: one in three awaiting outcome of trial”), and to make it more equal.
How do they support the legal aid available in the country? How do we encourage lawyers to work pro bono? (How do we know how much of this work actually happens? I for one would rather choose a lawyer who does more pro bono work than another.)
How do we ensure that the most vulnerable are targeted first – for example children? Wouldn’t it be useful to know how many children are unrepresented in court? If we compare similar cases, are the outcomes different if you are represented, or not?
How can we pursue long overdue legal reform (for example, the Jamaican Government has approved changes to its laws, ending the practice of locking children up for so-called “uncontrollable behavior”).
For too long the justice system has been found wanting, and unless there is serious reform by all involved, the public will continue to lose the little confidence it has left in the system, innocent people will continue to be found guilty, and the guilty will be found innocent. The time for this reform cannot come soon enough.