BELIZE CITY, Mon. Jan. 18, 2021– For the first time in Belize’s history, the launch of a new year of proceedings at the Supreme Court took place virtually. The virtual opening took place on Monday, January 18, 2021. As is tradition, the legal year was marked by a church service, which was conducted at the Wesley Methodist Church this year, without of course, a large gathering of members of the legal fraternity in attendance. Those persons were mostly tuned in, at their desks, or in front of the screens of their various devices, in their homes or offices. Following the pomp and ceremony, Acting Chief Madam Justice Arana delivered the annual report from the Judiciary.
In starting her presentation, Acting Chief Justice Arana first thanked the former Attorney General, Michael Peyrefitte, and congratulated the newly appointed AG, Mrs. Magali Marin-Young. She then proceeded to the fiscal allocation portion of her remarks. Acting Chief Justice Arana shared that about 10 million dollars had been allocated to the upper courts and General Registry during the previous fiscal year, 2019. That amounted, she said, to about 0.098% of the National Budget, and was further decreased during this fiscal year to around 9 million dollars, which constitutes 0.083% of the National Budget for 2020-2021.
“The demands on the judicial system are overwhelming; we in the Judiciary are, and have always been, fully in favor of improving efficiency and effectiveness in the delivery of judgments and the administration of justice in general. Judges in large measure have not been sitting idly by, twiddling their thumbs, allowing judgments to remain unwritten or cases left unheard,” she said.
“The paucity of manpower and the dearth of resources to address the high volume of cases is such that the small number of judges that we do have sit in court almost every day presiding over matters of varying degrees of complexity, leaving precious little time to deliver written judgments in a timely manner,” Acting Chief Justice Arana remarked.
She said that because of this lack of resources, the judiciary is in a way handicapped, and thus not able to carry out its duties to its full potential. According to Acting Chief Justice Arana, at present, a small number of judges are presiding over a huge caseload. Two judicial officers reached retirement age last year — former Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin and Justice Courtney Abel. Also, Justice Shona Griffith took up a position in the High Court in Barbados. This left the Civil Division of the Supreme Court with only two judges, to preside over 1,111 cases in the last legal year. They soon received help with the appointment of Justices Lisa Shoman and Westmin James to the Supreme Court.
Chief Justice Arana went on to point out that, in addition to the “shoestring” budget allocated to the Judiciary that has prevented that arm of government from carrying out its duties at maximum levels of efficiency, the global COVID-19 pandemic also presented an extra layer of difficulty for judges and other officers of the court, who were forced to adapt to virtual proceedings in a very short period of time. She shared that the inadequacy of chambers and the lack of technological hardware and software has presented additional challenges that have stymied the delivery of justice.
In her remarks, Acting Chief Justice Arana shared that she awaits the promised increase in budgetary allocation from the new government. The Acting Chief Justice also addressed the House of Representatives’ recently introduced constitutional amendment to impose time limits and penalties on judges for the delivery of written judgments.
She said, “We are aware of the recent bills to impose legislative and constitutional limits on the delivery of judgments read in the House of Representative last Friday, January 9, 2021. The Judiciary fully accepted the need to be held accountable in the performance of our duty to the citizenry, whom we have the honor of serving. To this end, the Judiciary has as recently as November 2020 provided the Legislature and the Executive with an extensive list of some of the major concerns and required resources of the Judiciary which contribute extensively to judicial delay and which directly impact and impair our level of efficiency and productivity. To date, we have not been provided with any of the requested assistance, and we have been advised that the Government of Belize, ‘simply has no money at this time.’”
Acting Chief Justice Arana added, “We do hope, pray and trust these pieces of legislation which directly impact and potentially undermine the security of tenure currently enjoyed by the Judiciary do not constitute sheer political posturing at the expense of the Judiciary, or worse, a deliberate attempt by the Legislature and Executive to erode the sacred principle of the independence of the Judiciary, by demanding the improvement of efficiency in the delivery of judgments and making judges subject to the removal of office for failure to meet these time limits without the legislature and executive fulfilling their own duties by providing the essential human resources and infrastructure necessary to enable and empower judges to be able to meet those time limits.”
She shared that the magistracy has also been extremely challenged by the large number of persons now being arraigned for COVID-19-related offenses. She also outlined that the Criminal Division of the Supreme Court is hoping to retain two new judges to fill the place of two justices who have reached retirement age recently. At present, the lack of judicial officers within that division will present some added difficulty to the Judiciary, she said.
Currently, 441 persons are remanded at the Belize Central Prison. Of that amount 122 are imprisoned for murder, and awaiting trial, with about 100 of those persons having already waited for over two years. At this time 80% of hearings are conducted virtually.
In concluding her presentation, Acting Chief Justice Arana shared one of her favorite pieces of poetry, written by Present Theodore Roosevelt: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
She then ended by saying, “May God protect and strengthen us as we work together to deliver justice to the people of Belize. I now declare the legal year of 2021 open.”