Hemorrhages Identified

Today, as is the tradition, the Supreme Court held it's Ceremonial re-opening as it usually does on the second Monday of January every year.

This is third opening that Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin presided over as the Chief Justice of Belize. It's an opportunity for the Judiciary to report to the general public on how its handling civil and criminal cases filed in the court system.

Today's report was filled with the usual tales of woe, but also an outline of possible fixes for a justice system riddled with inefficiencies. Our News Team was there for the ceremony, and Daniel Ortiz reports:

Daniel Ortiz reporting
The Judiciary, Legal Fraternity, and several VIP's all gathered at the Wesley Methodist Church for the 1 hour service.

At its completion, Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin, flanked by his brother and sister judges of the Supreme Court, all lined up, with the attorneys bringing up the rear. They marched through the downtown streets, giving pedestrians and bystanders a fleeting and rare glance at the faces of these legalists who wield great authority within the state.

From there, Chief Justice Benjamin inspected the Honor Guard, and then, everyone made their way to his court room where he formally addressed the gathering.

Justice Kenneth Benjamin - Chief Justice of Belize
"Once again, we gather for the rendering of the stewardship of the judiciary; the third pillar of government, task by the constitution with an independent and important function of adjudicating upon civil and criminal matters."

The Chief Justice then proceeded to report on important judicial activities from last year. An emphasis was placed on the number of cases filed in the Supreme Court.

Justice Kenneth Benjamin - Chief Justice of Belize
"During the course of the year 2014, 778 new matters were filed inclusive petitions of bail and other petitions. Our records show that 786 cases were disposed of in the matrimonial division, 315 divorce petitions were filed and 258 of the same were disposed of. The disposal rate of cases continues to be unsatisfactory largely due to lengthy trials punctuated by voidier inquiries into the admissibility of admission and confessions. In 2013, the conviction rate was peg at 39%, which although generally above the acceptable general average, was solid by there being only an 8% conviction rate for murders. The remand population at the central prison remains at unacceptably high numbers, notwithstanding a drastic improvement in 2014. Although the total remand population has fall by 27% from 510 persons to 370 persons. The numbers of persons awaiting trial in the Supreme Court has only been reduced by 8. Of the remaining remandees awaiting their trial in the Supreme Court, 17 of them or 9% have been in custody for more than 5 years. Also, 40% of the total number have been on remand for more than 2 years."

The Chief Justice, Kenneth Benjamin spoke for 36 minutes, and then Eamon Courtenay, the President of the Bar Association, took the mic and addressed the issues most important to the legal community.

Eamon Courtenay - President of the Bar Association
"My lord, there are 3 particular issues that the Bar Association continues to be very concerned about. The first is the delay in the delivery of judgment. A matter to which I had referred last year. There has been noticeable improvement. There has been an increase in the speed in the delivery of judgments. However, we would urge the court to continue to grapple with the back log of judgments that remains outstanding. Secondly, it is approaching one year that the general legal council has not met. That is simply unacceptable. Complaints continue to mount. Complainants are becoming restless. It is unacceptable that persons who are supposed to be serve by attorneys at law, file complaints and cannot get a hearing."

Courtenay was hypercritical of the Court of Appeal's performance last year

Eamon Courtenay - President of the Bar Association
"The court of appeal; my lord, members of the judiciary, the bar association wishes to on record it serious concern about the state of affairs in the court of appeal. The last session of the court of appeal was historic in it's under performance. For the first time in history, or as far as I am aware, there was not a single criminal appeal heard. That is unacceptable. In the same side, there were a record low number of civil appeals heard."

Hon. Wilfred Elrington - Attorney General
"I would like to say that I faithfully promise to bring it to the attention of the Prime Minister. It is a matter which is really above my personal pay grade, but I will certainly bring it to his attention with alacrity."

That was one of the few light moments of today's ceremony, because the Attorney General, like the speakers before him, focused significantly to the failures of the justice system.

Hon. Wilfred Elrington - Attorney General
"We in government are naturally and particularly troubled by the back log of cases for resolution both the civil and criminal calendars of cases. We fully subscribe to the view that justice delayed is justice denied and that delays and denials of justice can and do have on occasions catastrophic consequences for business enterprises large and small, for innocence citizens who made to languish in prison on remand for inordinate periods of time. Increasingly, a number of youthful citizens who find themselves in possession of conflict are opting to take the law into their own hands to resolve these conflicts. A number of cooperate citizens as well are opting to have their judicator of their civil disputes done in extra territorial jurisdiction. And our own attorneys are inter alia from time to time now inviting judges to recuse themselves from adjudicating cases in which they are involve on the grounds of bias. With the advent of globalization, the information age and social media, it is now common place for the ordinary citizen to ventilate their every grievance of the internet. Their demand for instant gratification is at an all-time high and no one is immune from their criticism and vitriol, neither politician nor judges nor priests. In such a climate my lord, it is very plausible that the very difficult task of dispensing justice in a timely manner would become even more difficult in our jurisdiction."

Technology; The Fix Supreme Court Flaws?

So, now that the Judiciary knows what is wrong with the system, what IS being done to fix it? Well, a Criminal Justice Board has been formed to handle all the problems with the number of backlogged cases.

The idea is to set up a guideline for judges in called the Criminal Procedure Rules, which would allow judges and magistrates to dismiss cases with prolonged delays or a glaring lack of evidence.

This means that the police investigators will have to ensure that the case files for all accused persons are complete, or else the charge will be thrown out, rather than face an endless stream of adjournments:

Justice Kenneth Benjamin - Chief Justice of Belize
"The most significant step has been the drafting of criminal procedure rules. These rules prescribe time limits for the disposition of criminal cases incorporating the principle of active case management by the courts themselves. Under the rules, no person should await trial in Supreme Court for more than 2 years, which shorter time limits being applied to persons in custody and remand and to magistrate court matters tried summarily. Adjournments are to be limited and the early identification of trial issues will be sought through the completion of pre-trial case management forms. As the ultimate sanction, judges and magistrates would be empowered and would be expected to dismiss cases not ready for trial within the time limit. These rules are in the final stage of preparation and expected to come in force by early February 2015."

And what about the low conviction rate for murder? Quite regularly, we report on murder cases in which the accused gets acquitted because their confession statements are thrown out. Usually they allege brutality or coercion.

To deal with that, police will be given a new set of instructions from the Commissioner of Police on how they will handle prosecution witnesses and accused persons. Part of that standing order will include strict instructions that all statements will be recorded digitally, and submitted as evidence in the trials. Also, police will have to make more detailed reports of the care and custody of accused persons, especially before any criminal charges are formally brought against them.

The Chief Justice announced today that these changes should improve the quality of evidence submitted before the court, hopefully to improve efficiency and conviction rates:

Justice Kenneth Benjamin - Chief Justice of Belize
"To address allegations of police brutality and ultimately to boost the number of statements made on the caution being admitted into evidence, the Commissioner of Police is expected to introduce police guidelines. Say for field interviews, caution statements are to be digitally recorded. The guidelines will also prescribe minimum standards for the care of persons in police custody and require police officers to make a complete record of their treatment of persons in custody. These guidelines will replace the judges' rules and be issued by the Commission of Police. This will serve to put matters back into the hands of the police where they rightfully belong. Recoding equipment for police stations is being sourced through the Central American Regional Security Initiative of the United States Embassy."

Another major challenge in past criminal trials has been witness tampering and intimidation, in which persons who are supposed to testify refuse to show up. Sometimes, witnesses take the stand and refuse to cooperate with the prosecution to give evidence against an accused, and they've also admitted under oath that they fear for their lives.

The Chief Justice announced today that the Legislature is currently finishing up a Witness Protection Bill which will allow for witnesses to be protected, and testify anonymously via video link from undisclosed locations:

Justice Kenneth Benjamin - Chief Justice of Belize
"The draft Protection of Witnesses bill awaits Cabinet approval. This legislation will address the plight of vulnerable witnesses and will provide protective measures for such witnesses and for children when giving evidence. The object is to reduce the intimidatory nature of criminal proceedings. Measures will include the rendering of witnesses anonymous by order of court in deserving cases, allowing witnesses to give evidence behind a screen via video link from a remote location and to be cross examined after a pre-trial recorded interview. This will require a procurement and installation of video equipment. For this, a commitment has been given by the CARSI initiative of the United States Department of State."

The court also recognizes the police department has headaches transporting remanded persons to and from prison for their court dates. According to the Chief Justice, Direct Video Links are contemplated to allow the accused persons to witness their adjournments at Court from the prison, to eliminate the need for transport.

And to deal with backlog of civil cases, the Attorney General and the Government of Belize wants to recruit well-established lawyers from the legal community to act as temporary judges to help the Judiciary. Today, he made the announcement at the opening, and outlined what kind of qualifications the attorneys need to have to qualify:

Hon. Wilfred Elrington - Attorney General
"The Honorable Prime Minister has authorized me to inform you lordship, that our government stands ready to provide whatever funds that may be deemed necessary to pay publicly spirited senior members of the bar who are prepared to temporarily give up their service to the judiciary in an initiative to dispose of all the back log of cases both civil and criminal and who possess the requisite criteria for such an undertaking. Which criteria include irreproachable integrity, solid experience in the practice before the Supreme Court, demonstrated wisdom, intimate and comprehensive knowledge of the law, judicial temperament and the ability to communicate well orally and in writing. I am sure that there are many of my colleagues on the bar who qualify for these services."

According to Elrington, this has been done in the past to measured success.

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Supreme Court Opens With New Optimism

The traditional opening of the Supreme Court was held this morning in Belize City with all the usual pageantry and ceremony that are attached to the event. After a service at Wesley Church, the attorneys and judiciary moved over to the Supreme Court for the speeches that look at the state of affairs in the system. While there has been some improvement in the meting out of judgements and legislation awaiting the nod for witness’ protection, there is still a long list of issues that affects the delivery of justice. News Five’s Isani Cayetano reports.

Isani Cayetano, Reporting

The ceremonial launch of the 2015 legal calendar, including the traditional opening of the Supreme Court, complete with a brief procession led by Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin, was held this morning in Belize City.  Following an ecumenical service at St. John’s Cathedral, the congregation, members of the judiciary and bar mostly, made its way on foot to the courthouse adjacent to Battlefield Park where Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin would inspect the guard of honor.

Next they gathered inside the CJ’s chamber where presentations were made by President of the Bar Association of Belize Eamon Courtenay, Attorney General Wilfred Elrington, as well as the Chief Justice himself.

Kenneth Benjamin, Chief Justice

“Protection of witnesses.  A draft Protection of Witnesses Bill awaits cabinet approval. This legislation will address the plight of vulnerable witnesses and will provide protective measures for such witnesses and for children when giving evidence.  The object is to reduce the intimidatory nature of criminal proceedings.  Measures will include the rendering of witnesses anonymous by order of court in rare, deserving cases allowing witnesses to give evidence behind the screen via video link from a remote location and to be cross-examined after a pretrial recorded interview.”

Perhaps the most important bit of news coming from the bench, as mentioned earlier, is the safeguarding of persons involved with the justice system, including defendants and other clients, before, during and after a trial.

Kenneth Benjamin

Kenneth Benjamin

“This will require the procurement and installation of video link equipment.  For this a commitment has been given by the CARSI initiative of the United States Department of State.”

The conviction rate, over the years, has been negatively impacted by witness tampering in situations where intimidation or retaliation is expected.

Kenneth Benjamin

“The conviction rate for 2014 is not yet available; however, the systemic problems remain and are the subject of reform.  In the capital cases the assignment of counsel for unrepresented accused continues to be a challenge.  Mindful of the seriousness of the offense, more junior counsel are being assigned.  Honorarium is indeed not comparable to regular counsels fees but as I’ve repeatedly said, this is a function of the pro bono obligation expected of every attorney-at-law practicing at the bar.”

Eamon Courtenay

Conversely, delay in the handing down of judgments remains a perennial issue.

Eamon Courtenay, President, Bar Association of Belize

“There has been noticeable improvement.  There has been an increase in the speed in the delivery of judgments; however, we would urge the court to continue to grapple with the backlog of judgments that remain outstanding.  Secondly, it is approaching one year that the General Legal Counsel has not met.  That is simply unacceptable.  Complaints continue to mount, complainants are becoming restless.  It is unacceptable that persons who are supposed to be served by attorneys-at-law file complaints and cannot get a hearing.  Your lordship the Chief Justice is now the chairman of the General Legal Counsel, since November we have elected the three persons who are to serve on the General Legal Counsel and we have so informed your lordship.  My lord, we urge you to call meetings of the General Legal Counsel at the earliest possible time so that the mountain of complaints can be dealt with.”

The surfeit of cases, as pointed out by the president of the bar, is of equal concern to government.  Despite an attempt to dispose of matters in a timely fashion, there is still an accumulation of cases which has created a ripple effect across society.

Wilfred Elrington

Wilfred Elrington, Attorney General

“We in government are naturally and particularly troubled by the backlog of cases for resolution both on the civil and criminal calendars of cases.  We fully subscribe to the view that justice delayed is justice denied and that delays and denials of justice can and do have on occasions catastrophic consequences for business enterprises large and small, for innocent prisoners who are made to languish in prison on remand for inordinate periods of time, for their loved ones and family membership who are forced to do without their companionship and support while they are incarcerated.  Delays in the resolution of cases also have the effect on practicing attorneys whose remunerations is more often than not contingent upon the conclusion of cases they argue before the courts and who, in most cases, have no ability and no other source of income.”

Reporting for News Five, I am Isani Cayetano.

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