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Low Morale at Supreme Court Opening Print E-mail
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Written by Shane D. Williams   
Thursday, 17 January 2013 00:00

JusticesThis year’s opening of the Supreme Court was perhaps the least enthusiastic in the history of Belize. While the Bench, Bar and Attorney General partook in the recently accepted norm by making swipes at each other, there was one point of agreement. In the words of His Excellency Kenneth Benjamin, Chief Justice of Belize, “the criminal justice system is in crisis”.


The opening of the Supreme Court session is held so that the court can render an account of its performance in the previous year to the people of Belize. It is held annually on the first Monday after the court ends its vacation, which is also the second Monday in the month of January. This year’s ceremony began with an ecumenical service at the Holy Redeemer Cathedral. Immediately following the service, the Belize Defense Force band led a procession that ended at the steps of the Belize Supreme Court. There, primary school students and other spectators looked on as the Justices of the Supreme Court arrived. All Justices were escorted to stand before the Guard of Honour by Commissioner of Police Allan Whylie. Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin then descended from the Supreme Court building and inspected the Guard of Honour. Following the inspection, Nicholas made his way to his chambers to give a report on the state of the Judiciary.

Attorney General, Hon. Wilfred Elrington, began by speaking of financial matters. Benjamin pointed out that the budget for the Judiciary was a little over $8,193,000. He said that while he is inclined to ask for a bigger slice of the pie, he understands that Government’s responsibility to social development and its debt obligation is of paramount importance. Despite financial limitations, in 2012, the Court saw significant technological advancement. A computer database system has been installed for the storage of case files. Files for 2011 and 2012 are currently being uploaded and 2013 and beyond will be as well. On Friday, January 11th, the Supreme Court opened its own website, www.belizejudiciary.org, to provide greater insight on the operations of the Court to the public. The court is also now equipped, with video conferencing equipment which has been useful in cases of the Caribbean Court of Justice. Witnesses from the United States and as far as Europe have been cross examined using this technology. In order to make the court more user-friendly, there is currently an evaluation of the Supreme Court Civil Procedure Rules. The Chief Justice expressed his concern about poor accommodation for Magistrate Courts across the country and called for an improvement in the situation.

On the issue of crime and violence Chief Justice Nicholas said, “There has been an unprecedented number of violent cases brought before the court.” There are currently 181 inmates awaiting trial for violent offenses. 38 of them are men accused of murder and have no legal representation. To address the situation, the Attorney General has agreed to increase honorarium for representation of individuals accused of murder. An additional judge is also expected to be appointed to the bench to work on the high number of criminal cases. Benjamin has instructed the Director of Public Prosecutions to work with Justices of the Supreme Court to tackle stall tactics practiced by defense attorneys such as requests for verification of statements, which currently takes days to complete. The Chief Justice also pointed out amendments to the criminal code that were implemented in 2012. In 2012, the Chief Justice presided over the first trial without a jury and witness were held accountable for their police statements. After wrapping up his address, Justice Benjamin invited the President of the Bar Association, Andrew Marshaleck, and Attorney General Wilfred Elrington to address the court.     

Marshaleck also expressed his concern for the criminal justice system. He said, “the continue drise in crime, despite legislative changes, has caused the general public to lose confidence in the legal system.” He called for a united effort in attempts to restore public confidence in the system. Marshaleck asked for the court to act more expeditiously in cases where the accused are held on remand. Without mentioning any effort the Bar will make to help fix the justice system, he redirected the focus of his presentation to complain about the lack of security of tenure for judges and questioned why “some judges get long contracts and others don’t”.

In his remarks, the Attorney General spoke against the practice in which the Bench is attacked by the Bar. He challenged the Bar to focus on its own body by providing education and training courses for its members. He reassured the Chief Justice that the Government is doing its best to manage and restructure its international debt obligations and said that any relief will directly benefit the Judiciary in terms of additional financing. However, he pointed out that the improvement in the performance of the court will be dependent on the efforts of the human resource, not a bigger budget. Elrington challenged the court to act more expeditiously in criminal cases using instruments of law already available to them. He then moved the motion to adjourn.