BELIZE CITY, Mon. Jan. 16, 2017–The legal year opened this morning with the usual pomp and circumstance. Notwithstanding the ceremonial aspect of the opening, however, there are many challenges facing the judiciary that Chief Justice, the Hon. Kenneth Benjamin outlined in his address to the bar and bench.
CJ Benjamin began his address quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the American civil rights leader whose birthday was yesterday, Sunday, January 15. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Dr. King had proclaimed in a 1963 letter.
“The Judiciary cannot stand by itself as it relies on the Executive and the Legislative pillars of Government to provide its funding,” said Hon. Benjamin.
The CJ said, “Any review of the performance of the Supreme Court must begin with a reference to the resources made available by the Legislature for the conduct of the business of the General Registry, the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal. Even so, it must be recognized that the budgetary allocation is inevitably inadequate to meet the myriad of activities in need of financing.”
Government has allocated $9,851,008 which translates into 1.06% of the National Budget, CJ Benjamin said.
“This is an increase of 0.04% from the period 2015 – 2016. Regrettably, it has already been signaled that the allocation will be cut for 2017 – 2018. Austerity will therefore be expected during the coming year,” the Chief Justice informed.
CJ Benjamin said that during 2016, all the judges of the Supreme Court were accorded full tenure and the complements of judges were filled in both the civil and criminal division of the court.
The CJ also noted the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Troadio Gonzalez, who will demit office in 2017. Justice Gonzalez’s departure will create a vacancy in the Criminal Division of the court.
“I wish to pay tribute to Justice Gonzalez who has been a fixture in public service in Belize for many years. Having served as Crown Counsel, Chief Magistrate and Director of Public Prosecutions, he ascended the Bench of the Supreme Court in January 1993. His 24-year career on the Bench has earned him the respect of the Bench and Bar alike. His experience and wisdom as a resource among his colleagues will be sorely missed,” CJ Benjamin said.
In the case of the Magistracy, the CJ noted the appointment of Magistrate Norman Rodriguez and Magistrate Dale Cayetano, who now heads the Belize Family Court. The Magistracy, the CJ noted, is still below its full complement of judicial officers.
“An aggregate of 781 claims were filed in the civil jurisdiction of the Supreme Court during 2016. To this must be added the 366 divorce petitions filed. Of these, 706 claims were taken to disposition and 342 divorce decrees were granted. In this regard, the civil jurisdiction has enjoyed a satisfactory case filing-to-case disposition ratio,” said the CJ.
The CJ further remarked, “In January 2016, the Criminal Procedure Rules were brought into force, ushering in the concept of case management. The efficacy of these Rules is dependent upon a paradigm shift in the culture of how criminal matters are processed in the criminal justice system….”
“The Police Guidelines for the Interviewing and Treatment of Persons in Police Detention are in force as of January 1, 2016. These guidelines are to be buttressed by the audio or video recording of police station interviews and statements taken under caution. This necessitates the installation of electronic recording equipment in police stations which is being anxiously awaited. It is hoped that benefits can accrue to the trial process as has been the case in other countries in the region, including Dominica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Bermuda. These jurisdictions have experienced the elimination of lengthy voir dire proceedings challenging the admissibility of caution statements,” he said.
“The lists of criminal cases in the Central District remain at unacceptably high levels,” CJ Benjamin noted.
“The Northern Sessions have experienced an all-time low number on the list; this euphoria was however short-lived as it became apparent that this was attributable to the lack of processing of preliminary inquiries from the Magistrate’s Courts in Orange Walk and Corozal. The Southern District has seen its list balloon from 10 cases or less to a record 54 cases pending as of December 2016,” CJ Benjamin further said.
CJ Benjamin also noted that the remand population remains high as of 31, December 2016, with 475 persons on remand. “Of that number, 146 have been in custody for in excess of two years. 249 inmates or 52% are charged for murder. It remains a serious cause for concern that the remand population is disproportionately high,” he stated.
To address this issue, the CJ said, “I have sought from the Attorney General’s Ministry, budgetary support in the new financial year 2017 – 2018 for the engagement of three additional Judges for the Criminal Division for a fixed period with a view to tackling the cases that are outstanding for more than two years.”
“It has become apparent that the Family Court is in need of case management software. It is hoped that concrete steps will be taken during the financial year 2017 – 2018 to commission the development of such software,” CJ Benjamin said.
“In July 2016, the JURIST Project funded by the Government of Canada through Global Affairs Canada conducted a one-day collaborative workshop with stakeholders of the justice system to identify needs and priorities to inform the work plan for the next year of the Project. This event saw the coming together of a wide spectrum of persons representing organizations and agencies touching the justice system in Belize,” said the CJ.
“The work of the JURIST Project in backlog reduction and case management in the Court of Appeal will continue in 2017. Thereafter, attention will be turned to addressing the backlog of inferior appeals pending before the Supreme Court.,” he said.
CJ Benjamin also mentioned, “As of June 2016, all the courtrooms of the Magistrate’s Court and the Supreme Court in every district are equipped with court audio recording and IT equipment. During the period April to June 2013, through the kind generosity of the Government of the United States of America through the International Narcotic and Law Enforcement (INL) and the Central American Regional Security Initiative, equipment to the tune of $372,610.18 (US) was installed in nine Supreme Courts and eighteen Magistrate’s Courts.
“On behalf of the Judiciary of Belize, it is my duty to thank the Government of the United States of America for this far-reaching gesture.”
“The net effect is that no longer are Magistrates required to record proceedings in long-hand. This would enable the swift disposition of cases and guarantee an accurate record of the proceedings for appellate purposes and otherwise,” said CJ Benjamin.
“Under the chairmanship of the Chief Justice or a nominate Judge, the General Legal Council met consistently throughout 2016 for approximately 18 sittings. 16 new complaints were filed in 2016. Complaints were heard and decided upon in accordance with the Legal Profession Act, Chapter 320,” he also mentioned.
After thanking the Commissioner of Police and the staff of the General Registry among others, Chief Justice Benjamin declared the legal year open and invited the president of the Bar Association, attorney Pricilla Banner, to address the court.
Banner congratulated the former first woman Attorney General, Ms. Vanessa Retreage, who, she said, carried out her duty in a stellar fashion, and newly appointed Attorney General Hon. Michael Peyrefitte.
Banner also said that the Bar Association and the judiciary have worked well together in many initiatives, and she noted that the Bar has always worked to protect the independence and impartiality of the Judiciary. She also remarked, “Can we say with conviction that our courts are completely beyond reproach, in so far as the delivery of judgment is concerned? I daresay the answer is a humble no.”
Banner said that the effort to perfect the administration of justice is an effort and a job that is never complete. The Bar Association has the utmost respect for the progress that has been made last year from the use of courtroom technology to the use of mediation and arbitration, she said.
Following the Bar Association president’s address, CJ Benjamin then invited Attorney General Hon. Michael Peyrefitte to address the court and to move the adjournment.
Belize’s new Attorney General made the point that there is nothing new under the sun. “As your new Attorney General, I am beseeching both bench and bar to develop a love affair for the present,” he said.
AG Peyrefitte said that senior counsels have often related to him that the bench and bar are the worst they have ever seen and not as good as when they were juniors.
He said that from now on he doesn’t want any more senior counsels to tell him how bad things are on the bench, unless they want to join.
AG Peyrefitte said that from now on his door as Attorney General will always be open for suggestions and ideas.
The AG made the suggestion that to tackle the backlog of cases in the Criminal Division of the court, the Registrar can look at handling the task of a bail application instead of having a judge be removed to do so, in order to save valuable judicial time.
The AG said that he wants to do a comprehensive review of the existing criminal law with a focus on mandatory sentences. “There has been many judicial decisions from this jurisdiction which cast doubt on the constitutionality for such types of sentences, and for this I will be leaning heavily on Mr. Anthony Sylvestre, who in my view is a senior criminal law man. Thank you for stepping up, Anthony,” said Peyrefitte.
AG Peyrefitte said he looks forward to more summits between the bench and bar, and he believes that the time has come for the reestablishment of the civil procedure rules committee. “And I will endeavor to meet with senior members of the bench and bar toward this end,” he said.
AG Peyrefitte ended by saying the doors of his chambers are wide open. “And I covet everyone’s assistance,” he said.