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Senate approves new comprehensive Legal Aid scheme

Posted: Wednesday, April 19, 2023. 4:42 pm CST.

By Aaron Humes: In a special session this morning in Belmopan, the Senate approved after debate a new scheme for the provision of legal aid to deserving persons as part of the national justice system.

The Legal Aid Bill was read along with an amendment to the Senior Courts Act, 2022, which proposed to remove provisions relating to the assignment of attorneys-at-law by the courts to provide legal aid services. As enumerated by Leader of Government Business Senator Eamon Courtenay, the new Legal Aid Commission will be beholden to no one once appointed by the Chief Justice (a provision referring to the Minister being removed), and will have full powers to appoint a Director of Legal Aid and appropriate staff and otherwise set out provisions for the offer of legal aid whether through the order of the court or voluntary appointment of lawyers.

Legal aid will be extended under the law to persons charged with capital offences (usually murder and treason), manslaughter, rape, marital rape, indictable offences involving minors, and other indictable offences in which the trial judge believes the assistance of an attorney would help in resolving the matter as well as in appellate matters and civil matters (family law, minors, habeas corpus, matters relating to land), but Courtenay expects that the list should not be extended for now.

Courtenay pointed out that this advances legal aid in Belize far beyond the court-managed apparatus but acknowledged that no attorney can consistently take cases for free. But as he reiterated, “if you can pay for it, pay for it,” as the legal aid scheme exists for the most indigent. It is well-known that some who have begun paying for legal services but then try to take advantage of legal aid at a discounted cost, he noted.

Opposition Leader in the Senate Michael Peyrefitte commended the scheme, and speaking as an attorney discussed the scheme of empaneling attorneys to handle civil, criminal, and appellate matters and fellow legal eagles scheming to get out of cases: “One of the major problems we have with legal aid is this, and it causes a lot of backlogs for those people who genuinely need legal aid…attorneys would be assigned a matter by the Chief Justice as the law was back then, and then an attorney would say, ‘Well, I don’t do criminal law; so I have to be excused from that case – I have never done a murder case before.’ And so, they would take all these free cases, practically, and put it only on these attorneys who practice criminal law…I would hope that it would be very difficult that once the Commission assigns you to do a particular case that you can’t just say, ‘I don’t do that type of law.’…”

The Ministry of Human Development was granted a seat particularly as those most knowledgeable of the ‘means test’ that would be needed to determine those most worthy of legal aid.

The new Legal Aid Commission is obligated to establish offices throughout the country and panels of attorneys will be established for criminal, civil and appellate matters. Attorneys would voluntarily offer to be placed on these panels in addition to hired staff. Those on the panels would be expected to offer their services in as many as three cases per year, more likely one or two. The new legislation offers a different system of remuneration for legal aid volunteers that would remove the current cap on service that limits the amount an attorney can get paid for such cases. The Commission will be made to report on its activities, but Courtenay put off the question of sanctions for not reporting until the wider question of reporting by statutory bodies can be more closely looked at.

 

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