High hopes for new Chief Justice, Kenneth Benjamin
At a Special Sitting of the Supreme Court held in Belize City on Friday, September 23, 2011, members of the Bar expressed high hopes that the eminently qualified Chief Justice, Guyanese Kenneth Benjamin, appointed on September 15, would help to restore not just strained relations between the Bench and the Bar, but also public confidence in the nation’s judiciary.
“In Belize, we scrupulously adhere to the rules of law, and in particular the separation of powers. Here in Belize judges enjoy tenure…, so long as the judge is not in breach of good judicial conduct. I am confident that you will carry on until such time when in accordance with the Constitution of Belize, you reach the constitutional retirement age  or sooner...” said Attorney General B.Q. Pitts, in honoring Benjamin at the Special Sitting.
Supreme Court Justice Samuel Awich, who had held over the post of Chief Justice for the past year, following the departure of Dr. Abdulai Conteh, noted that, “Currently crimes, especially of violence, have escalated.... This year the police in Belize have already received over 80 reports of homicides, and I was recently informed that in one of the countries in the Caribbean smaller than Belize, the number was 84 as at the end of August; so it will not be an unfamiliar work that you will embark on, My Lord.”
The job of the Chief Justice extends far beyond hearing matters before the Court. According to the website of the Supreme Court, “The judiciary, which is one of the three separate arms of the State, is headed by the Chief Justice, who has overall responsibility for the administration of justice in Belize.”
“I feel humbled...and I pledge to apply every talent that God has bestowed upon me in the furtherance of the improvement of justice in Belize,” said Benjamin.
“Perhaps one of your biggest challenges, My Lord, will be to successfully navigate the minefield of Belizean politics,” said president of the Belize Bar Association, Jacqueline Marshalleck. “No doubt a proper tool of navigation would be to ensure that you steer well clear of it, but experience shows that politics in Belize has a way of spreading its tentacles to poison even unsuspecting victims,” she added.
Marshalleck said that Benjamin’s reputation and integrity indicate that throughout his 18 years as a High Court Judge, he has “deftly avoided such pitfalls.”
She urged that, “It is extremely important to the profession and to this nation, that we have a Chief Justice who is prepared to administer justice without fear or favor.”
Senior Counsel Derek Courtenay spoke for The Inner Bar (senior attorneys), noting that, “There is widespread disquiet in the community about the way in which the justice system works. The most prominent manifestation is the dissatisfaction, frequently expressed, with how cases involving crimes of violence are handled.”
He added that, “The increase in violent crime and the perceived failure of the justice system to ‘deliver justice’ has evoked a cynicism in the population.”
Courtenay noted that the public perception is that too often criminals get away for no acceptable reason.
“There is also disillusionment with the way that civil matters are dealt with,” Courtenay added. “Here the perception is that we have not conquered the problem of delay, and that the Civil Procedure Rules have not helped but instead have created new obstacles, slowing the process to trial.”
Courtenay pointed to other concerns over the state of Belize’s judiciary, including “the logjam in the courts and the interminable delays in dealing with cases brought before the magistrates and also at the Supreme Court level.”
He urged that, “In this regard, we are greatly encouraged that Your Lordship has had several years experience in the administration of Magistrate’s Courts in Antigua/Barbuda; further that you have most recently been engaged in the implementation in St. Lucia of the Criminal Procedure Rules of 2008, applying case management techniques in the disposition of criminal matters at the level of the High Court. It is to be hoped that our system will benefit from your experience in this field and that during your tenure it may prove possible to introduce the Belize Rules of Court for criminal matters.”
Justice Benjamin disclosed that since his arrival in Belize two weeks ago, he has met with some key professionals, including Attorney General B.Q. Pitts, senior staff of the Supreme Court Registry, including Registrar General, the Chief Magistrate designate, as well as officials of the Family Court.
This, said Benjamin, will help in the identification of key outstanding issues demanding attention in both the short- and long-term.
The consultations, he said, must continue if we are to make the delivery of justice improve over time.
He also noted that Marshalleck, as the president of the Bar, had paid a courtesy call on him, which turned, instead, into an extended consultation. Out of that meeting, CJ Benjamin is proposing the formation of a bench-bar committee, the composition of which, he said, will be shortly determined.
“The issue of delay in the delivery of judgments by certain justices contributed to the deterioration of relations between the Bench and the Bar and also resulted in the cancellation of the annual Bench and Bar Summit,” noted Marshalleck.
The bench-bar committee, said Benjamin, is intended to be the forum and advisory body on matters impacting the delivery of justice. He noted that the preservation of the rule of law is not the exclusive province of the Bench—the bar must also play its role.
CJ Benjamin also proposed the resurrection of the committee which saw the introduction of the Supreme Court Rules back in 2005.
“I have taken onboard a suggestion by one of my colleague judges that the critical assessment of the rules needs to be undertaken. To this end, it is my intention to resuscitate the Rules Committee with the new mandate to embark upon a review of the rules,” said Benjamin, proposing that the original members make themselves available to once again serve on the Committee.
At today’s Special Supreme Court Sitting, both Marshalleck and CJ Benjamin read notes of condolences on the passing of Belize’s first Prime Minister, and the premier who led Belize into political independence from Great Britain – Rt. Honourable George Cadle Price. Benjamin called for a moment of silence in Price’s honor before adjourning the sitting. Amandala