Supreme Court opens with first female justice
The annual parading of those forming part of our nation's legal system prompts reactions ranging from awe to disgust, depending in large part on your opinion of lawyers. But like it or not, despite its imperfections, we all depend on the rule of law. News Five's Janelle Chanona took in the spectacle this morning. Due to a bad case of laryngitis, her report was voiced by News Director Stewart Krohn.
All downtown activity was dominated today by the official opening of the legal year of the Belize Supreme Court.
Traditional ceremonies began with an ecumenical service at the Holy Redeemer Parish Hall. From there, the legal dignitaries paraded to the Courthouse where Chief Justice Abdulai Conteh and Justices Michelle Arana, Troadio Gonzalez, Adolph Lucas, and Samuel Awich, inspected the Guard of Honour.
The pomp and circumstance continued in courtroom number one where most of the city’s lawyers, magistrates, government representatives, and invited guests jostled for limited seating to hear the annual address by Chief Justice Conteh on the state of the judiciary.
As part of his speech, C.J. Conteh officially announced the selection of attorneys Ellis Arnold and Denise Courtenay as senior counsels. But the highlight of today’s ceremony was without a doubt, the official swearing in of Belize’s first female Justice of the Supreme Court. Before her friends and family, former substantive registrar Michelle Arana took the oath.
Michelle Arana, Supreme Court Justice
”It is a privilege to be the repository of such confidence which has placed this grave responsibility upon my shoulders and I shall therefore spare no effort in honouring that confidence by executing my judicial duties in accordance with my oath. I thank my brother judges for their warm welcome of me to their number.”
“I look forward to your continued support and request that you continue in the healthy tradition of allowing me to perform my judicial duties with my integrity and dignity intact.”
Abdulai Conteh, Chief Justice of Belize
”This no doubt is an important day in her personal life, so it should be. But it is an equally important day for the administration of justice in Belize as well, as it is for the history of this country it marks the very first time that a woman has been elevated to and confirmed in a position of Supreme Court judge. This is not only political correct, but it is also a singular affirmation that in Belize, gender ought not to be a handicap. This is as it should be.”
Conteh would go on to highlight what he called the non-violent revolution that marked Belize’s judiciary in 2005, noting the dramatic changes in the practice of law, especially with the adoption of the new civil procedure rules by the court. But while the C.J. emphasized “the fierce independence” of the judiciary, he admitted having to underscore the same points he did in last year’s address: that is, dire need for more financing and personnel to be injected into the courts.
”In so far as manpower is concerned, even for its comparable population, Belize has the least number of judges and magistrates in relation to other sister jurisdictions in the Caribbean.”
“The ever increasing list of both the civil and criminal cases makes manifest everyday that more judges are needed. The fact that judges have to move immediately from one civil case to another leaves precious little time to write clear written judgements in sufficient time. I am afraid nothing much has changed since last year. Even with recent appointment of Madam Justice Arana, which we greatly welcome, there is still clearly a need for more judicial manpower.”
“I am myself going to begin to try some criminal cases, as from the start of the new session of the central district commencing tomorrow, the seventeenth of January. The net effect of this is that I will not be doing civil cases for some time to come and there will only be one judge available in the whole country to do civil cases. This is not good enough.”
“In terms of budgetary allocation for the judiciary for the current year, 2006, the sum of four million, two hundred and fifty-two thousand, three hundred and forty-nine dollars is what has been approved. This represents in percentage terms some zero point eight-six percent of the overall national budget of some four hundred and ninety-three million, seven hundred and fifteen thousand and ninety-seven dollars. In percentage terms, the judiciary still continues to receive less than one percent of the total national budget. Let us reflect on this for a moment. When it is considered that the sum of less than one percent of total national budget allocated to the administration of justice includes salaries, emoluments, operational costs such as maintenance and repairs, services, travelling and subsistence, and other office supplies it can be readily realised that the cost of the administration of justice in Belize is but indeed miniscule.”
Conteh would go on to contend that the situation has forced the court to refuse of offers of training and education opportunities and suffer a shortage of relevant law reports and books for lack of financial resources.
When the Attorney General Francis Fonseca rose on the adjournment, his address would centre on the proposals of a white paper currently under discussion which focuses on things like a witness protection programme to deal with unwilling or missing witnesses, plea bargaining, and a domestic violence counselling initiative. Fonseca maintained that Belize, with other Caribbean states, has made “positive legal and legislative” leaps with moves towards the Caribbean Court of Justice and the recent adoption of the Caribbean Single Market and Economy.
Francis Fonseca, Attorney General of Belize
”It is from the above perspective that I have great confidence in submitting that in 2006, the twin principles of the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law will continue to be recognised and respected by private citizens and the government alike. In this respect, the government recognises the need for more Supreme Court judges, and the elevation of Madam Justice Arana as a fully tenured Justice strengthens the administration of justice. Justice Arana’s appointment is both historic and promising. I am confident that as Belize’s first female Supreme Court Justice she will blaze a promising path for the growing pool of young qualified female attorneys in Belize. We should recognise our limited financial and human resources and work together as bench and bar to recruit local attorneys to strengthen the bench. This is an exercise which we should all undertake seriously, objectively, and fairly. My submission My Lord Chief Justice is that the rule of law remains hallow if we do not have sufficiently qualified men and women who we elevate to the bench to decide cases expeditiously.”