Usual Complaints at 2014 Supreme Court Opening Print E-mail
( 3 Votes )
Written by The Guardian   
Thursday, 16 January 2014 14:59

The annual Opening of the Supreme Court provides an opportunity for the Chief Justice, Attorney General and President of the Bar Association to speak on matters affecting the justice system of the country. There is one point of agreement among all parties; the criminal justice system is in crisis; however, rather than offering solutions to the challenges this year’s opening was another finger pointing exercise.

The opening of the Supreme Court session is held on the second Monday in the month of January so that the court can render an account of its performance in the previous year to the people of Belize. This year’s ceremony began with an ecumenical service at the St. John’s Anglican Cathedral. Immediately following the service, the Belize Defense Force band led a procession which included the Justices of the Supreme Court, Attorney General, Magistrates, members of the Bar Association of Belize and officers of the Court. The procession ended at the steps of the Belize Supreme Court. There was a small crowd gathered in the Battlefield Park to look on as the Justices of the Supreme Court arrived and were escorted before the Guard of Honour. Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin then came down from the Supreme Court building to inspect the Guard of Honour. Following the inspection, Chief Justice Benjamin made his way to his chambers to give a report on the state of the Judiciary.

Shortly after his greetings, four minutes into the address, Chief Justice Benjamin spoke of the little funding allocated to the Judicial Branch of Government. Less than $9 million is budgeted for the Judiciary this financial year, 1.1% of the national budget. Chief Justice Benjamin says there are court buildings across the country that need to be rehabilitated and the Belize City Magistrate’s Courts have outgrown their temporary home in the Supreme Court building. Therefore, 1.1% of the national budget is not enough for the needs of the Judiciary. He did express some form of gratitude; however, pointing out that the 1.1% is an increase from the previous year which was an increase from the year before. The monetary increase over last year is a little over $300,000. In his remarks, Attorney General Wilfred Elrington said, “I have the permission of the prime minister to say to your lordship that 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.” He continued, “Clearly, we have got to, in fact, look into these issues and rationalize them.” Elrington told the Court that the Government will be making improvements to court buildings countrywide.

The main issue of concern for the Chief Justice, Attorney General and President of the Bar Association is poor case management in the system which has resulted in a heavy backlog. Chief Justice Benjamin said, “"The management of criminal matters continues to be unsatisfactory. As of December 31st, 2013 there are one hundred and ninety-three persons awaiting trial in the Supreme Court, remanded at the Central Prison in Hattieville.” According to the Chief Justice, “the vast majority, representing over ninety percent, are charged and committed for trial for murder or murder-related offences.” He says there is an inmate who has been on remand since 2004 after being tried twice before a judge and jury. He once again called on members of the Bar to provide legal aid to unrepresented persons accused of cap 2 cases. Last year Government raised the statuary honorarium for attorneys providing legal aid and that has resulted in a slight increase in service provided but Chief Justice Benjamin says “many more accused remain without representation." Eamon Courtenay, President of the Bar, also complained about backlog in cases. In particular, he spoke of backlog in cases involving foreigners saying “the one hundred and ninety-three persons who are incarcerated at the Kolbe Facility who are foreigners, seventy-one of them are awaiting deportation hearings.” He also complained about the number of Judges on the Bench. He says, “The staffing of the Supreme Court bench requires urgent attention and action.” He says because of that, “We can only expect the backlog to increase.” 

To help address the backlog in cases, Senior Counsel Antoinette Moore has been appointed to sit temporarily as a Justice in Belmopan. She will preside over cases from that jurisdiction and the South. Attorney General Elrington said, “We will continue to do our part in recruiting quality candidates to serve on our Supreme Court Bench.”