He wasn’t allowed to finish cases, but he was fair, formal and fearless

The Judiciary and others showered praises on Doctor Abdulai Conteh, Chief Justice of Belize who had his final day in office today. It was both a solemn and sobering occasion. Conteh, who is originally from Sierra Leone, is a graduate of Cambridge and the competent CJ has served the country for ten years, handing down judgments that will be remembered for being both fair and fearless. Conteh’s retirement was caught in controversy because the law allows him to conclude cases before him, but a request to remain briefly past his retirement age was turned down by the government. At his send-off, the judiciary was most complimentary and gracious; the speeches were flattering and effusive but before we bring you the pomp and circumstance that accompanied this afternoon’s proceedings at the Courthouse where he sat for a decade, Dr. Conteh sat down with the media and fielded questions about his retirement and his work, it was a unique opportunity.

Doctor Abdulai Conteh, Retired Chief Justice of Belize

Dr. Abdulai Conteh

“I refuse to be drummed out of office. It would be undignified for the office of a judge I lettered on the Chief Justice. So, the sorrow that I regretted in my statement is for the clients who had paid attorneys—they appeared before me. In two or three of those cases have made rulings—some are being taken to appeal. Now when I had to return the files, you can imagine if you are paying, I got to pay all over again. So I felt sorry for them. It is not a question of compromise—there is nothing to compromise. You either follow the constitution or you don’t follow it. That is my position that’s why I deliberately. I think it is simple enough language subsection two of section ninety-eight. At the time I had given indication I would leave in January, I had outstanding judgments and I had about ten or eleven cases to go through. I’d hoped if there had been some forbearance on the other side, they would have allowed me to go ‘til December and I would have finished it. But it was not to be as I said. But like I have said, my sorrow is for the people involved and the attorneys that labored and will now have to start all over again. It was an incident that might have been controversial for the judiciary in Belize, but I took the stand with my colleague judges, with members of the bar, when they saw me, they tried to make recommendations to. I said please whatever you do; don’t turn the judiciary into political football. We are all losers because we are going to be scoring our own goal against our own side. That is still my view. That is my position.”

Jose Sanchez

“After listening today’s session, you’ve been accused, in fact charged by your peers for being fair, formal and fearless in giving judgments against both P.U.P. and U.D.P. governments. How do you plead?”

Doctor Abdulai Conteh

“Let’s me say how I plea. I remember the day for a long time a former solicitor general of the government of Belize and had the demerit as I look back on it to say, my client the government. Hang on, hold your horses, I don’t have government in court. Government should sue conduct itself that it’s never brought to court. What I have are claimants and the defendants. Please don’t utter that word again, your client the government. So before me, I don’t see parties as government. No! I see claimant, I see defendant who has pressing issues. If I begin to say, oh that’s the government I should…no no no. I’ll be doing a disservice to my oath. I don’t have government in my court—I never had. I saw clients, defendants, claimants, respondents. Guilty.”

Still sits on the Cayman Court of Appeal and he has been invited to serve in other jurisdictions.

Last swing of the gavel for Chief Justice, Dr. Abdulai Conteh

dr. adbulai conteh

Earlier in the newscast Dr. Abdulai Conteh spoke about his retirement as Chief Justice. But before he brought down his gavel for the last time, his peers, other justices and senior counsels spoke of the man who vastly improved the judicial system and jealously guarded its independence. Members of the Bar let him know clearly that for the past ten years, he walked, talked and delivered justice as no other could.

Jose Sanchez, Reporting

Trumpets blared in front of the Courthouse this afternoon. The judiciary was in full attendance. And though it had all the trimmings of the Opening of the Court, it was the Chief Justice’ last time to inspect the guard. Dr. Abdulai Conteh, retired today on his sixty-fifth birthday. Justices as well as attorneys followed him to the Supreme Court where they congratulated him for his ten years of service.

Justice Samuel Awich, Supreme Court Justice

samuel awich

“My lord, Chief Justice Conteh and Misses Conteh, the judges, magistrates, and staff of the judiciary of Belize do wish you a happy retirement and wish you well in your future endeavors. If it is your intention to remain in Belize, I am sure you will be consulted by those in the legal profession from time to time. Should your lordship retire elsewhere, the many friends you have made in Belize will seek you out. Farewell Chief Justice Conteh and farewell Misses Conteh.”

Senior Counsel Philip Zuniga was poetic in describing the relationship of the CJ and the attorneys who graced his chambers.

philip zuniga

Philip Zuniga, Senior Counsel

“Before you came to Belize, you already had a long and distinguish history of service in your home country of Sierra Leone. Upon your arrival, we took notice that our quality of service from our Supreme Court took a distinctly upward pitch. We collectively recognized your leadership and demanded more. It is part of our human nature to demand more from those who can give us more. It’s not that we are greedy, we are just insatiable when we are getting what we like. CJ, if I can call you that affectionately as you know, you can’t and will never please everybody. Has it not been said often that nobody stones a tree that bares no fruit. Well now you know why we have thrown our stones—it is not at you, but at the fruits that you’ve bore. Judgments that delighted the winner but also excited the imagination fo legal practitioners and academics alike.”

Several attorneys spoke including Godfrey Smith and Lord Peter Hendry Goldsmith. The Bar President was suitably choked up before the end of her speech, which signified the feeling of the loss felt by all.

Jacqueline Marshalleck, President of the Bar

jacqueline marshalleck

“In 2005, Chief Justice Conteh dragged us kicking and screaming into the age of mandatory case management under the new Supreme Court rules. He worked closely and tirelessly with a committee of senior attorneys and judges to make this a reality. After an initial period of teething things, the rules became recognized as an invaluable tool in the dispensation of justice in our courts. We have relied very heavily on Chief Justice Conteh not only to manage our court system but also to take unto himself the most complex of cases. So much so that ‘Landmark’ is the word we expect to hear follow the name of Conteh. As attorneys, we know that the decisions of the Chief Justice particularly in the area of judicial review have been closely followed all over the Commonwealth Caribbean. Not every decision has been met by the public, or the government or the bar association with joy, but for the most part, they have been met with respect. Using the words of Justice Rosalie Silverman Arrela of the Court of Appeal of Ontario Canada; “I believe I can classify Chief Justice Conteh’s decisions as democracy at work. To you Chief Justice Conteh, you leave today with a heartfelt thanks and appreciation for the work you have done and the contributions you have made to the government. The people and the bar association of Belize, we wish you good health, good luck in your future endeavors and we look forward to hearing of your continued contribution to the several of the commonwealth Caribbean and beyond. May you long be known as the people’s chief justice.”

Abdulai Conteh, Retired Chief Justice

“I was regrettably unable to complete cases that had been brought before me before I reached the constitutionally prescribed age of retirement. The constitution as I have just read out, clearly allow this, but it was not to be. This naturally must have caused some alarm and disquiet especially among members of the Belize bar association and the public and was of course deeply disappointing to some of the litigants in those cases who have spent monies and fortune to retain some of the leading counsel in Belize. Let me say however that for me it was a matter of deep regret and sorrow especially when it is realized that cases are not influenced or determined by their date of births. I found all the bumbling fury quite amusing however because I had at the opening of the legal year on the eighteenth of January this year, thought I had sung my last song by giving information publicly of my eminent retirement. On a lighter note for me to observe that despite the fact that my sixty-fifth birthday was publicly and avidly trumpeted perhaps sometimes triumphantly and commented upon in several quarters, when the day itself arrived, I received neither cake nor card. Not even a telephone call from any of the commentators. But there was a silver lining as this was very fortunate for me, I can only ascribe the somewhat lapse of memory by not acknowledging the date to a gratifying oversight on the part of those who are so concerned, but enabled me to spend the day just like any other day. Let me for the final last time wield the gavel which I have never done in my court and this special sitting closed.”

The Chief Justice’s Chair sits sorrowfully, silently vacant and awaits another that has the mettle of Dr. Abdulai Conteh. Reporting for News Five, Jose Sanchez.

Since the chair is vacant, the acting Chief Justice is Samuel Awich.

Channel 5