By Aaron Humes
Amidst the pomp and ceremony of the opening of a new legal year, there was a greater sense of the importance Belizeans place on the Judiciary to dispense justice, despite heightened challenges and limited resources.
“2014 must be a year of action,” declared President of the Bar Association and Senior Counsel Eamon Courtenay, after he pointed out various challenges, including staffing, resources, infrastructure and professional development of the legal system.
Earlier, Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin thoroughly reviewed the work of the courts in such areas as information technology, judicial education, and especially the work of the civil and criminal divisions.
In the Civil Division, the Supreme Court lost two judges: Minnet Hafiz-Bertram, promoted to the Court of Appeal, and Oswell Legall, whose contract expired. Replacement for Hafiz-Bertram, Justice Rita Joseph-Olivetti, leaves the bench later this month – and the court two judges short.
Meanwhile in the Criminal Division, the court has had to institute the practice of listing for the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, since September 2013, a list of cases to be given urgent priority. As of the end of last year there were 193 remanded prisoners awaiting trial for various indictable offenses, most for murder.
The records say that one person is on remand since 2004, another since 2005; seven since 2006 and three since 2007; one to be retried since 2008 and 13 remanded since 2009. There are 47 cases dating to 2010; 54 in 2011 and 48 in 2013.
Additionally, said the Chief Justice, “There is no system in place for ascertaining what are the criminal matters in the system. There is an absence of the catalog of the cases correlated to the stage of each case in the process, from the laying of the charge in the magistrate’s court to its disposition in the Supreme Court. The obvious solution lies in the entire criminal process being integrated regardless of the court of which an individual matter is ceased.”
This, he said, resulted in a “disconnect” where not even the courts know which prisoners are on remand according to its own records: it must seek information from authorities at the privatized Central Prison at Hattieville.
The court has assigned Justice Denis Hanomansingh, based in Belmopan, to work the Southern Session of the court in Dangriga, and as of this coming Friday, Senior Counsel and human rights advocate Antoinette Moore will be sworn in and assigned for the next six months to hear cases in Belmopan, leaving aside her own private practice.
The Judiciary’s allocation of the national budget is up slightly, by $300,000 to just over $8 million; not nearly enough to manage the work of the Family Court, Magistrate’s Courts, Supreme Court and Court of Appeal. The first saw the retirement of long-time director Margaret Nicholas, while there was turnover of four magistrates – two returning, two retiring – at the Magistrate’s Courts, most of which are still located in cramped conditions.
Chief Justice Benjamin also reported breakthroughs in plans for a “drug court” concerning itself with rehabilitation and treatment, which has the support of the Cabinet, and efforts to establish mediation as an alternative to the court system.
The Chief Justice named attorneys Magali Marin-Young and Jacqueline Marshalleck, and Director of Public Prosecutions Cheryl-Lynn Vidal to the Inner Bar as Senior Counsels. Each has extensive experience in the court system.
He also commented on and commended the upcoming crop of law students presently studying at Norman Manley Law School in Kingston, Jamaica, who have been proudly representing the country in “moot trial” competitions, which involved preparing and arguing legal briefs in a courtroom setting.
Senior Counsel Courtenay also drew attention to the state of foreigners on remand, totalling 71 who are scheduled for deportation, and six persons – including a man jailed since 1976 after trial for manslaughter – who are detained “at her Majesty’s pleasure,” having been found to be legally insane or unfit to stand trial. The Bar, he said, stands ready with plans and procedures to be put in place for reform at all levels of the system.
So too, said Attorney General Wilfred Elrington, is the Government, which is setting aside funding to work on the Magistrate’s Courts and supporting other activities of the Judiciary. With the acquiescence of Prime Minister and senior attorney Dean Barrow, A.G. Elrington commented thus on the state of affairs with regard to the funding of the Judiciary:
“We too are not happy with the level at which the judiciary is being funded. It certainly cannot be the case that an institution that is so fundamental to our democracy and to our way of life gets a measly one percent of the national budget when the Ministry of Education enjoys some twenty-six percent and they are demanding more.
“Clearly, we have got to, in fact, look into these issues and rationalize them. The judiciary is absolutely essential for the maintenance and the continuation of our way of life and we need to do everything to ensure that it remains in a healthy state.”
The day began with a church ceremony at St. John’s Cathedral involving a united group of clergy from the major Christian denominations and the Muslim community. The Court typically has sessions three times a year in its major criminal jurisdictions – North, Central and South – and meets as needed in the Civil Division.