BELIZE CITY, Mon. Jan. 17, 2022– The opening of the new legal year 2022-2023 took place this morning with a virtual commencement exercise coordinated and produced by the Government of Belize Press Office, using the court’s new virtual judicial management system, APEX. The virtual commencement featured all the typical pomp and circumstance associated with the opening of the new legal year and featured important announcements of new judicial personnel and major changes in the structure of the high courts in the country.
During her presentation preceding the adjournment of the opening, the Attorney General, Hon. Magali Marin-Young, announced that the Government of Belize is currently drafting a Senior Courts Bill by means of which a total rearrangement of the Supreme Court will be carried out. One of these changes will be the renaming of the Supreme Court, which will become known as the High Court of Belize. During last year’s opening, Hon. Marin-Young first announced the government’s intention to restructure the court system; today she gave some insights into what changes will be made.
“Firstly, it is proposed that the Supreme Court is to be renamed Belize’s High Court, since it is a misnomer to call it the Supreme Court when it is not our apex court. Under a newly restructured Court of Appeal, a new High Court, there is to be a Chief Justice whose judicial function is to be recast to administratively supervise the performance of all High Court and Court of Appeal judges and allowing for him or her to sit on either court from time to time in the important matter of his or her choosing,” AG Young explained.
She went on to tell the acting Chief Justice, Hon. Madam Michelle Arana, that this is the only reason she has not been given proper tenure of office. At this time, the government is entering the consultation phase and hopes to have this new legislation to restructure the court passed in the short term.
“Under the proposed restructuring, there is to be one judicial leader, namely the Chief Justice who will head both the High Court and the Court of Appeal and will be assisted by two senior high court judges one in the civil division and the other in the criminal division. In the civil division, there is to be a Public and Administrative Law Division, a Family and Trust Law Division, and a Commercial Law Division. The Chief Justice will continue to chair the Judicial and Legal Services Commission and as chair will ensure that matters are dealt with efficiently. “ AG Young shared.
Besides the restructuring of the bench, the government is also promising an infrastructural upgrade for the court. Attorney General Marin-Young announced that the government is also planning the construction of a judicial complex. This complex is to feature larger courtrooms that are retrofitted for virtual hearings, which have become the new norm.
In regard to funding for the judiciary, acting Chief Justice Arana stated that the funds allotted to the courts (after there was a cut in what was designated for the judicial system in last year’s budget) was “woefully inadequate.” She explained that the court’s budget was reduced from 9 million dollars to 7.9 million dollars.
”While the judiciary is fully cognizant of the need for cost-cutting measures, especially in this era of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is imperative that this arm of government be funded in a manner that enables us and empowers us to carry out our duties in an effective manner. An overburdened, under-resourced, and underfunded judiciary is not conducive to the effective and the efficient administration of justice.” CJ Arana said.
As far as judicial personnel is concerned, all three divisions of the Judiciary had to engage in the recruitment of legal personnel last year. To date, five new magistrates were added to the low court, while an additional 4 Supreme Court Justices and three new Justices of the Court of Appeal were appointed. Justice Lisa Shoman has been given tender of the Supreme Court, while former Justice Westmin James returned to Barbados to his position as a law professor at the UWI Cave Hill Campus.
In total, in the last year, 1,343 new civil cases were lodged in the Supreme Court, according to CJ Arana, with 603 of those cases being disposed of. In the criminal division, a total of 81 new criminal indictments were heard, with 70 cases in that division being disposed of. At this time, the remanded population at the Belize Central Prison stands at a total of 355 persons, with 187 remanded for murder.
The Bar Association, in their presentation, highlighted issues with the limited Court of Appeal hearings and a lack of comprehensive judgments coming from the bench. On the issues of limited hearings by the Court of Appeal, they shared that with the new virtual hearings, that should be done away with.
“The limited Court of Appeal sessions must be left in 2021,” the president of the Bar Association, Illiana Smith, remarked. She added, “The Judiciary now has a tool to do better; the Bar would urge that the Court of Appeal have sittings all year.”
In reference to the delivery of judgments from the bench, she said, “There is a growing concern by the Bar, about the quality of judgment delivery. It has unfortunately become quite common for parties to receive judgments with little to no reasons and merely a repetition of the arguments made by counsel and a statement as to which side of the argument was accepted. Parties to litigation and, most importantly, the unsuccessful party, should know why a judge arrived at a specific decision, as is consistent with the rules of natural justice.”
Also announced were upgrades to court buildings across the country and relocation of various courts to more suitable building locations.