BELIZE CITY, Mon. Jan. 8, 2018– The ceremonial opening of the Supreme Court got underway this morning with an ecumenical service at the Wesley Methodist Church, from where the members of the judiciary and the legal profession paraded to the Supreme Court. At the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin inspected a police Guard of Honor before proceeding into his courtroom for the addresses which kicked off the opening of the new legal year 2018.
Chief Justice Benjamin said in his address that the ceremonial opening of the legal year is constitutional in its nature, since it prepares the way for the judicial arm of the state to carry out its functions, “which is to carry out justice through a system that is fair, prompt, independent, efficient and effective.”
CJ Benjamin noted that the ability to fulfill this mandate is constrained by budgetary constraints and the availability of human and physical resources.
“The Judiciary must be resolute in dispensing justice to all court users. It has been the approach of the Judiciary to seek assistance from local and international agencies where possible…,” CJ Benjamin said.
The CJ went on to express gratitude to UNICEF, the National Committee for Families and Children, the US State Department through the Embassy of the United States in Belize, and the Jurist Project, funded by Global Affairs, Canada.
“For the fiscal year 2017-2018, the Judiciary, inclusive of the Magistracy, was allocated $9, 915,110, which represents approximately one percent of the national budget. This is a reduction of 0.6 percent from the allocation of the fiscal year 2016 to 2017. That fact is hardly a surprise, given that I had foreshadowed in my address that austerity was expected,” the Chief Justice said.
Chief Justice Benjamin said that the start of the legal year 2017 began with a reduced staff in the Criminal Division of the Supreme Court – a circumstance that continued for the entire year. That situation has been addressed with the appointment of Madam Justice Marilyn Williams, who was sworn in on Friday, January 5. Justice Williams is the holder of a jurist doctor degree and will take up duties in the Criminal Division in the Central District of the Supreme Court in Belize City, the Chief Justice said.
Justice Williams was admitted to practice in Belize in 1999. Prior to that she served as Crown Counsel in the Attorney General’s Ministry and Senior Crown Counsel in the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions during the period 1994 to 1999. She has served as the Director of the Financial Intelligence Unit for six years and has practiced privately as an attorney at law.
In the course of 2017, formal notification of financial support was received from the Ministry of Finance of budgetary support for the engagement of two temporary judges for the Criminal Division for a period of one year to deal with the backlog of cases, the Chief Justice said. “In furtherance of this most welcome accommodation, His Excellency, the Governor General, has appointed Mr. Colin Williams, the current Director of Public Prosecutions of St. Vincent and the Grenadines as a Justice of the Supreme Court,” CJ Benjamin informed. He added, “Mr. Williams has been a practicing attorney since 1999 and the DPP since 2003 up to the present. He will ascend the Bench in March 2018.
“The second temporary judicial position is being actively addressed and an announcement will be made, when the process prescribed by the Constitution has run its course.”
The CJ noted that the Magistracy was strengthened with the appointment of Michelle Trapp, a Crown Counsel at the Legal Aid, who recently obtained a Master’s Degree from the UK., and that Magistrate Aretha Ford has been promoted to Senior Magistrate
Chief Magistrate Ann Marie Smith reached the retirement age after serving for six years in the post and Her Honor Sharon Fraser was appointed as Chief Magistrate. Fraser is very experienced, having been a magistrate since 1998, said the CJ.
“As it stands, the Magistracy is below its optimum compliment. I therefore wish to issue a call to attorneys at law to offer themselves to serve as magistrates, whether permanently or on a temporary contractual basis,” said the CJ.
There has been a changing of the guard in the General Registry, Ms. Velda Flowers demitted office in 2017, after holding the position of Registrar and Registrar General for 9 years. In reference to this, the Chief Justice remarked, “The Judiciary owes Ms. Flowers a huge debt of gratitude for her service and wishes her the best. On November 6, 2017, Ms. Triennia Young assumed the post of Registrar and Registrar General. Ms. Young previously held the position of head of the Belize Police Department Prosecution Branch as a substantive Senior Crown Counsel…”
Sabetha Maharaja was also appointed as Deputy Registrar; she previously worked as a Crown Counsel in the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. “…she brings extensive managerial skills from the private sector,” CJ Benjamin said.
In August 2017, Ms. Erlene Petzold, the Clerk of Court, retired and was replaced by Mrs. Diana Hendy.
In 2017, a total of 838 civil claims, inclusive of petitions for bail, were filed; 711 claims were disposed of; 364 divorce petitions were filed and 292 decrees were granted.
In the Criminal Division, the absence of one judge severely hampered the disposal of cases from the Central District, where 131 cases remain. With the appointment of two judges the rate of disposal is expected to be significantly improved. The proposed sentencing guidelines are in the final stages of completion; accordingly, the basis for sentencing regulations will be provided to assist in encouraging early guilty pleas.
CJ Benjamin said that the statistics received from the Kolbe Foundation indicate that 424 persons are on remand awaiting trial, 5 persons are awaiting decisions, 2 persons are awaiting sentencing and 1 person is detained pending extradition. Of the 230 persons awaiting trial in the Supreme Court, 156, or 68.2 percent, have been in custody for over two years. The two judges that will be appointed will be tasked to address those persons who have been on remand for long periods of time.
Chief Justice Benjamin also pointed out that Belize is now fully equipped to provide arbitration in place of litigation.
The rules for mediation in family court and elsewhere are being drafted, the CJ informed.
The Jurist Project is funded by the Government of Canada. In October, sexual offence cases were launched in Belize. The process was informed by a workshop that was held last year involving stakeholders of the criminal justice system and members of civil society.
Belize has been selected as a site for e-training in judicial ethics for judicial officers. The story board for the training is in an advanced stage of preparation and should be rolled out in April of this year.
Eleven complaints were heard by the General Legal Counsel, (GLC) the body which hears complaints against attorneys. CJ Benjamin is the chairman of the GLC.
On December 28, 2017, four persons were sworn in as Commissioners of the Supreme Court. They are Mrs. Marlene Leslie, retired school principal and school administrator; Ms. Diana Locke, Director of Immigration; Assistant Commissioner of Police Desiree Phillips-Magdaleno and Mrs. Sandra Arnold, retired Magistrate of the Family Court.
CJ Benjamin said that the need to strengthen the law of insolvency, both private and corporate, has loomed large. “I am issuing an invitation to the Hon. Attorney General to address this matter with some urgency, given the present untidy state of the law of bankruptcy,” stated the Chief Justice.