Tonight, the Government of Belize is smarting from a major judgment against them coming out of the courtroom of Justice Oswell Legall.
Itís in relation to challenge launched by the Bar Association about the amendment to the Belize Constitution in 2008. In these amendments, the Government gave itself direct control over the length of time that they can allot when appointing sitting judge on the Court of Appeal.
The Bar saw this as the government having the ability to directly influence the decisions of these judges because they didnít have security of tenure. According to them, a reasonably informed observer can draw the conclusion that the judges being appointed under these amendments experience undue pressure because they appreciate that the government can make the decision on whether or not to extend their contracts after their short period of tenure is up.
According to the Bar, the judges are then unable to make a fair and impartial judgment in relation to litigation concerning the government because the constant threat of termination hangs over their heads.
Well, after hearing the matter by written submissions, Justice Legall handed down his decision in favor of the Bar Association. Although itís in relation to former Justice of Appeal Elliot Mottley, and Justice of Appeal Dennis Morrison, the implications are wider in relation to the issue of security of tenure when appointing justices to the both the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal. It sends a clear indication that the court recognizes the ability of the Executive to directly influence the Judiciary.
Today, Eamon Courtenay, President of the Bar Association, discussed the case with the media:
Eamon Courtenay - President, Bar Association
"Well I think it's a very important case that was brought by the Bar Association and it refers to the 6th Amendment in the Belize Constitution. Your viewers might recall that the Government amended the constitution to provide - a judge is appointed by the what is called an 'Instrument of Appointment' and that instrument would say how long the judge is to be appointed for. There were two judges - Mr. Justice Motley and Mr. Justice Morrisson who did not have a term specified in Instrument of Appointment. The bar took the view that they were to serve until death or until they resigned. For some reason the Government did not like that and did not appreciate that. What happened was that they amended the constitution to provide for an Appointment. What it said was that if nothing was mentioned in your instrument of appointment then it will be deemed to be for one year. Then it said that any instrument of appointment issued the amendment to the constitution that did not state a period it would mean that you would only serve for one year so you had two sitting judge that had full security and their term was cut to one year but the constitution amendment also allowed the Government or any Government in the future to appoint somebody without stating at term. So that they can view the person and decide whether or not they like the way that person performed. The bar took a decision that they should challenge this amendment and the basis of the challenge was essentially that any judge appointed to the court of appeal must enjoy security of tenure in order that he or she can be regarded by the litigating public and the public at large as being independent and impartial. A person cannot by definition be regarded as an independent judge if he or she is serving only for one year especially when he or she will be hearing cases brought by the Government or against the Government.
This morning Mr. Justice Legall handed down his decision and agreed with the bar and declared the amendment to sections on fifteen and sixteen unconstitutional so that you can no longer have these short term appointments. It seems to us that this judgment has vindicated a position that has long been held by the association that judges both at the Supreme Court as well as the court of appeal should not be appointed for contracts of one year and two years, three years, even four years. There is no reason why you do abetting of a judge find that he or she has the qualifications, expertise, independence and the integrity. You must appoint that person with security so that that person should never have to wonder whether or not - if I give a decision one way or another, somebody will be annoyed with my, upset with me and my continues service would be in question. It is also very important for the public; when you are standing before a judge of the court of appeal or the supreme court that you don't have to wonder whether this judge is on a long contract or on short contract. Whether your decision is going to be affected because this judge may think if I rule one way they may not renew my contract"
Today, 7News attempted to speak to attorney for GOB, Michael Young, but he refused. He did tell us, however, that the Government of Belize intends to appeal this ruling. But at this point, Justice Legallís ruling stands that these amendments are unconstitutional, null and void.