Chief Justice & Attorney General Spar at Supreme Court Opening

The 2009 session of the Supreme Court was officially opened this morning in Belize City. There was the usual pomp and circumstance but that was about it for the pleasantries because the AG and the CJ had a rough exchange. Keith Swift has the story.

Keith Swift Reporting,
With a marching band in the lead – the Chief Justice along with his entire bench and the bar proceeded down Regent Street to the steps of the Supreme Court. In front of the courthouse - the Supreme Court justices arrived – after which the Chief Justice inspected a guard of honour mounted by the Police Department.

And while there was pageantry outside – inside the Chief Justice’s courtroom there were fireworks as the CJ Abudali Conteh railed that judiciary is understaffed and under-funded and ultimately – justice is being undermined.

Dr. Abdulai Conteh, Chief Justice
“Public funding made available to the judiciary does not reflect the important role expected of the judiciary in national affairs. It is still woefully underfunded. It is a fact that over the years, the judiciary has always been hard pressed for funds to undertake important initiatives and projects and even to meet some unexceptional needs; common ordinary expenditure that you take for granted. This it must be stated does not augur well for the proper administration of justice.

A properly and adequately funded system of the administration of justice is part and an indispensable part of a country’s infrastructure; indeed its very social capital. When it is realized that merely one percent of the national budget is repeatedly allocated for this arm of government, it must set one thinking about priorities and we often in the judiciary sometimes wonder whether we’ve got them right. This grand allocation of just one percent includes of course salaries and wages and other costs of the judiciary. I can only therefore, if I may, take this opportunity to paraphrase in the circumstances, the memorable words of Oliver Twist: ‘can we please have some more.’”

But Attorney General Wilfred Elrington says the judiciary can’t get more funding – at least not much more since in a stinging reply – Elrington pointed the finger right back at Conteh and the rest of the bench.

Hon. Wilfred Sedi Elrington, Attorney General
“I personally find it unacceptable that in fact we are experiencing these inordinate delays in the giving of judgements in cases. I find it unacceptable that almost every single case the judges have to reserve judgement. I see no reason because many of the cases are not complicated, they are simple cases and I can say that because I have personal experience on the bench. So I think that the judges need to look more inwards; they got to be much more diligent, more dedicated.

The members of our judiciary are the very best paid public officers in the land. They all receive more pay than members of the Cabinet, including myself. They all have the most modern means of transportations, they have 24 hours it seems police guard, and other perks. They are the very best paid public officers in the land.

When I hear ordinary people who sometimes die before judgements are given in relatively simple cases, complaints about this intolerable state of affairs I can empathize with them because not too long ago that was not the case in Belize; that was not the case in Belize and I still believe that it is possible for many more cases to be disposed of in our courts, civil cases, during the course of a day.”

Maybe not in a day but Conteh says the bench has decided to deliver judgements in less than 3 months.

Dr. Abdulai Conteh,
“Starting this year they will endeavour to deliver judgements not later than three months or soon thereafter as practical after the conclusion of a case, depending of course on the length and complexity of a case. The downside of this, for surely there must be some, is that in an increasing litigious society such as we now have in Belize, cases may have to wait a little longer to get listed for a full hearing. Justice delayed is justice denied is without question a universal lament that has plagued the administration of justice in almost every jurisdiction.”

Both Conteh and Elrington do however agree that the criminal justice system is seriously eroded. Conteh says there were 83 nolle pros cases in 2008.

Dr. Abdulai Conteh,
“In the course of 2008, the Director of Public Prosecutions Office, I am sorry to say lodge not less than 83 nolle prosequi; 83. The expression nolle prosequi, which is from Latin French, is almost becoming part of Belizean Creole. It is sad.

It is always, Mr. Commissioner of Police, a cause for despair to hear as one often does nowadays that a particular case has fallen through because of a lack of witnesses. In so far as the increasing number of nolle prosequi in the Supreme Court is concerned, I want to again take this opportunity to exude the DPP and the state counsel that if on perusal of a case file they consider that it is not sufficient material to sustain an indictment, either because of the unavailability of material witnesses or some other reasons, please, please do not in such circumstances press on with an indictment. It is just an empty shell only to enter a nolle prosequi later. It sends a wrong signal, a despairing message to the hapless public. In the face of the escalating crime rate, we need more than ever before a robust credible and effective criminal justice system that should put criminals on the retreat.

The problem of the reluctant or unwilling witnesses is not a phenomenon unknown to the law. There are provisions in the law to meet this, let us use them. It is a criminal offense in itself to interfere with a witness whether by threats, intimidation of otherwise and recanting witnesses understand faces the prospect of prosecution for perjury.”

Chief Justice Conteh also announced that he has accepted a job to serve on the Cayman Island’s Court of Appeal.

We should note that the Chief Justice Conteh says his appointment on the Cayman Island’s Court of Appeal will not affect his work as the head of Belize’s Supreme Court.

Another major announcement at this morning’s opening was the appointment of a new judge. He is Oswell Legall from Guyana and should be on the bench by the end of this month. There is a also a new Registrar General. She is Velda Flowers who takes over from Aldo Salazar whose contract expired.

Channel 7