BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Jan. 20, 2022– The Government of Belize intends to introduce an amendment to the Indictable Procedure Act at its next sitting of the House of Representatives in order to add various offenses to the list of crimes that can be tried by a judge alone, without the presence of a jury. Since 2011, we have had in place laws to allow for some criminal trials to be tried without a jury. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the court transitioned to judge-alone trials before the resumption of jury hearings in February 2021. According to a recent Cabinet brief, this new legislation seeks to address issues arising from jury trials and assist in the clearing of the backlog of pending criminal cases.
“The offenses to be added are abduction of a child, sexual offenses, offenses under the trafficking in persons and offenses under the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (Prohibition) Act,” the release from Cabinet says.
This means that the four new Supreme Court judges who have been added to the bench will have a substantial number of cases assigned to them, since the high court has been struggling to clear its backlog due to a lack of human resources following the resignation and retirement of a number of justices.
Bench trials are nothing unfamiliar to Belize. In 2020 the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) upheld a murder conviction handed down in the case of Hernan Manzanero v the Queen  CCJ 17 (AJ) BZ. The appellant court found that “judge alone trials were essentially no less fair than jury trials.”
The judgment from the CCJ also stated, “that in a judge-alone trial where the trial judge conducted a voir dire, an appellate court must be satisfied of the following: that the trial judge, in determining the guilt of the accused, did not carry over any unfavorable findings on the accused’s credibility to their deliberation on the main trial, or that the trial judge was not improperly influenced in arriving at a guilty verdict by evidence which was biased against or indicative of the guilt of the accused, but was not ultimately admitted into evidence.”
Cabinet has also decided to repeal and replace the Libel and Defamation Act. The release says that they are seeking to “strike a balance between the prosecution of the reputation of an individual and the freedom of speech and expression.” The new law to be introduced also seeks to modernize the Libel and Slander tort law.
Also, persons seeking to become money lenders will have to go through a more extensive vetting process, following the approval of legislation to change the Money Lenders Act and Money Lenders Regulations to strengthen entry barriers for new money lenders. The law will also affect existing money lenders, as it seeks to improve the transparency and accountability of those companies.
The Prime Minister, Hon. John Briceño, in an interview yesterday also announced that the former Auditor General, Dorothy Bradley, had tabled an updated piece of legislation for the office of the Auditor General and has since passed it on to the Attorney General, who will review the legislation. In the former Auditor General’s outgoing release, she noted that the new legislation will ensure that the office is independent of government influence and properly financed. The Prime Minister also told local media that the government would be advertising the office of the Ombudsman, which has been vacant since the departure of Lionel Arzu.