BELIZE CITY, Mon. Jan. 14, 2019– The legal year began today with the traditional opening of the Supreme Court with all the usual pomp and circumstance, which included a Belize Defence Force marching band, leading a parade from the Holy Redeemer Cathedral to the Supreme Court and a police guard of honor that was inspected in front of the Supreme Court by Chief Justice, Kenneth Benjamin.
Following the march of the bar, bench and ancillary staff of the judiciary, the courtroom of Chief Justice Benjamin was filled to capacity, for the annual addresses, chronicling the accomplishments of the past legal year.
At the opening of his address, Chief Justice Benjamin acknowledged the sterling support of the Attorney General’s Ministry.
Noting the financial support that is provided to the Belize judiciary, Chief Justice Benjamin acknowledged the contributions which supplement the allocations from the legislature to provide training and support assistance from partners such as UNHCE, UNICEF, the OAS, the US State Department through the Embassy of the United States of America, the Swiss Embassy in Mexico, and the Human Trafficking Project and Jurist Project, funded by Global Affairs, Canada, just to name a few.
This year’s allocation to the Judiciary from the Legislature was a little more than 10 million dollars, representing around 0.957 percent of the national budget, which, the Chief Justice declared, was a decrease for the period 2017 to 2018.
Chief Justice Benjamin also noted that in the last quarter of 2018, the Vital Statistics Unit, Belize Companies Registry and the Belize Intellectual Properties Office were transferred from the Registrar General to the Solicitor General.
“This change affects the budget of the General Registry,” CJ Benjamin noted.
Hon. Mr. Justice Colin Williams and Mr. Justice Francis Cumberbatch were appointed for one year to assist the Supreme Court with the backlog of cases in its criminal division.
In December 2018, Justice Dennis Hanomansingh and Justice Adolph Lucas reached the retirement age of 75. Both justices were assigned to the criminal division of the court.
“It is well accepted in judicial circles that Justice Lucas has been an oracle of knowledge,” CJ Benjamin said of the retired Belizean judge, “undoubtedly he will be missed.”
Four new magistrates were appointed last year as magistrates.
Magistrate Natalia Bevans retired last year.
There are vacancies to be filled in the Magistracy, the CJ noted, and he made a call for attorneys to apply to fill the posts.
In 2018 there were an aggregate of 818 civil cases, inclusive of bail applications. In the criminal division Madam Justice Marilyn Williams inherited over 131 cases from the retired Justice John Gonzalez and over the year, 24 more cases were added, the CJ Benjamin said.
Between Justice Marilyn Williams and Justice Colin Williams they have disposed of 62 backlog cases, over the period of January to December. During that same period Justice Lucas disposed of 21 cases.
In the Southern Session of the court, Justice Hanomansingh disposed of 29 cases and had about 38 pending.
In Punta Gorda, Justice Cumberbatch disposed of 20 cases and there are only 12 recently indicted matters pending.
In Belmopan, the combined efforts of Justice Antoinette Moore and Justice Cumberbatch disposed of 49 cases, from a list of 91, while 44 more cases were added. All murder cases dating up to 2016 have been heard or otherwise disposed of.
The Northern Session of the court opened in January 2018 with 65 cases. Ten (10) cases were reassigned, 5 new matters were added to the list, and a total of 21 cases were disposed of, and that list is now down to 51.
As of December 31, 2018, the remand population at the prison stands at 260 persons from the Magistrate’s and Family Courts; 182 persons are remanded by order of the Supreme Court, of which 9 persons are awaiting sentence, decision after trial or extradition. One person is detained at the pleasure of the Supreme Court; and 172 cases are awaiting trial at the Supreme Court, of which 74 have been there prior to 2016. At the end of 2017, 157 persons had been awaiting trial for over two years, and the majority of those are for murders, which will be given priority in 2019, CJ Benjamin said.
At the Family Court, CJ Benjamin noted that the nagging problem plaguing the court has been persons getting their maintenance payment to the intended recipients, usually single mothers. The Director of Family Court is hopeful that a technological solution will solve this problem. A prototype has been identified and is waiting for funding.
The Caribbean Court of Justice in its judgment last March has ordered that all persons serving mandatory life-in-prison sentences be vacated and substituted with fixed-date sentences.
There are 23 persons whom this affects and 4 have so far been resentenced. The challenge has been a social impact report; CJ Benjamin said that this should be addressed by April.
The rest of the CJ’s address dealt with matters of judicial education for judges and magistrates who went outside the country for specialized training and workshops, in various subject areas, including human trafficking.
Following the Chief Justice’s address declaring the legal year open, the court heard from the President of the Bar Association, Cheryl-Lynn Vidal, S.C., who updated the court on the work of the Bar Association.
Vidal explained that 197 persons have benefited from the association’s free legal clinic that it has been holding around the country, the last one being in Battlefield Park, in Belize City. In the next two weeks, the Bar Association will hold free clinics in Dangriga and Punta Gorda to assist members of the public with legal issues.
On a lighter note, Vidal spoke about the Bar’s Sports Day, at which members participated in sporting events that were also attended by some of the judges and many of its younger members.
After the president of the Bar Association had spoken, C J Benjamin then called upon the Attorney General to move the adjournment.
AG Michael Peyrefitte was unable to attend due to illness. Former Attorney General Wilfred Elrington, however, was present to deliver AG Peyrefitte’s address.
Among the highlights of the AG’s address was the fact that a new Solicitor General has been appointed, in the person of Elisa Montalvo, who succeeds Nigel Hawke, whose contract was not renewed when it expired last December.
The AG also called on the bench and the bar to assist in the fight against crime.
Apart from offices for Legal Aid in Belize City, Belmopan and Orange Walk, the AG Ministry announced that a new Legal Aid office will be opened in Punta Gorda.
$634,041 was collected by the Belize Intellectual Properties office and its staff received critical training. Almost $9 million was collected by the Belize Companies Registry, the AG Ministry announced.
The Toledo Land Rights Commission continues to work on the CCJ consent order, the AG announced.