Posted: Wednesday, January 18, 2023. 9:31 am CST.
By Aaron Humes: The Senior Courts of Belize, renamed after new legislation passed in 2022, began its legal year with a prerecorded ceremony released on Tuesday.
There was the usual church service at St John’s Cathedral, followed by a ceremony in front of the old Supreme Court Building. (The Old Treasury Building which hosted the Supreme Court and Magistrate’s Court and offices suffered damage to its roof as a result of Hurricane Lisa in November, forcing the relocation of the latter across town to Coney Drive and parts of the former to the National Bank Building further down on Regent Street).
Chief Justice Louise Blenman began her address by citing the most significant change to the Judiciary’s role and function – the passing of the Senior Courts Act, which reorganizes the Judiciary into a combined High Court and Court of Appeal acting in concert. New divisions and judicial offices will and have been created to, as she said, “[improve] the administration of justice…the expectation is that all of this would result in the improvement of the delivery of timely and efficient justice in Belize,” and called the changes “visionary.”
Beginning with addressing judicial vacancies, the Chief Justice thanked her immediate predecessor, Acting Chief Justice Michelle Arana, for her service through most of 2022 – she has moved on to the Court of Appeal. Eschewing rote statistics, she recognized the hard work of fellow Justices and promised to build on their gains, though acknowledged that, “Even though some improvements have been made on the civil side, the backlog remains a matter of grave concern. At the beginning of 2022, there was a severe shortage of judges and this compounded the problem.” Four judges were subsequently appointed who served through this week; two of these have been re-appointed.
409 men and 11 women, along with 11 minors, comprise the remand population at the Belize Central Prison, a matter of “grave concern” for the Judiciary in reducing its backlog. At the same time, on the civil side, further measures need to be implemented to simplify a “too lengthy” trial process. The target is to have judgments delivered generally within six months of the hearing of the case in both divisions of the Senior Courts. A series of committees will be formed to address issues such as ethics, mediation, civil rules and procedure, and judicial education, capitalizing on successes and best practices in our fellow Caribbean countries.
Rarely does a Legal Year go by without complaints about under-resourcing, but the Chief Justice said she was “heartened by the support for the Judiciary and the welcomed commitment from the Executive to address the terms and conditions of the Judiciary in the upcoming fiscal year; we look forward to this eventuality from the Legislature with anticipation.” And it will be none too soon, as according to the Chief Justice, “It is widely acknowledged that the terms and conditions of service in Belize remain of serious concern to judicial officers. There seems to have been no revision of terms and conditions of the Judiciary for the past 12 years…the terms and conditions of judges in Belize do not compare to other Caribbean countries…three of the judges who [have] resigned from our Judiciary over the past five years have joined Judiciaries in the Caribbean where the terms and conditions are supremely better.” The High Court loses Justices Lisa Shoman and Sonya Young by the end of this month.
Despite the court’s travails, the Chief Justice hailed the “resiliency” of the system and its servants and maintained her commitment to upholding the principles of the Judiciary and its service to Belize.
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