The traditional pomp and circumstance accompanied the opening of the Supreme Court this morning. The spotlight of the event is shared between the Chief Justice, the Attorney General and the President of the Bar. All three addressed the ceremony citing pertinent matters: there is a reduction in the number of judges on the bench, a backlog on judgments and for the Attorney General, funding for the administration of justice is a measly one percent while teachers’ share of the national pie is twenty-six percent. News Five’s Isani Cayetano has a report.
Isani Cayetano, Reporting
The ceremonial launch of the legal year, complete with traditional pageantry, took place this morning at the Supreme Court of Belize. Following an ecumenical service at St. John’s Cathedral, a procession of lawyers, magistrates, justices, as well as other members of the judiciary, made its way down Regent Street, before culminating in front of Battlefield Park. There, an inspection of the guard was conducted by Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin.
Formalities aside, the CJ, during his address, spoke on a range of pertinent issues affecting the function of the courts, including the accumulation of criminal matters, particularly cases of murder and other related offences.
Kenneth Benjamin, Chief Justice
“As of December 31st, 2013 there are one hundred and ninety-three persons awaiting trial in the Supreme Court, remanded at the Central Prison at Hattieville. As you may well be aware, the vast majority, representing over ninety percent, are charged and committed for trial for murder or murder-related offences. One inmate is awaiting trial since 2004, having been twice tried before a judge and jury.”
The problem, according to Chief Justice Benjamin, is the persistently poor handling of such cases.
“The management of criminal matters continues to be unsatisfactory. The undisputable fact is that the development of a backlog is inevitable given that the number of new indictments filed continues to outstrip the number of cases disposed of whether by trial or otherwise. The situation is exacerbated by the cold fact that there is no system in place for ascertaining what are the criminal matters in the system. There is an absence of the catalog of the cases correlated to the stage of each case in the process, from the laying of the charge in the magistrate’s court to its disposition in the Supreme Court. The obvious solution lies in the entire criminal process being integrated regardless of the court of which an individual matter is ceased.”
Echoing those sentiments is Senior Counsel Eamon Courtenay, president of the Bar Association.
Eamon Courtenay, President, Bar Association of Belize
“In addition to the appalling statistics identified by your lordship, I draw to the attention of those gathered that of the one hundred and [ninety]-three persons who are incarcerated at the Kolbe Facility who are foreigners, seventy-one of them are awaiting deportation hearings.”
“One curious result of the disconnect is that the information on remanded prisoners must be sought from the administration of the central prison against the background that these very persons are being held on warrants that have been issued by the magistrates court and the Supreme Court and we ourselves don’t know who we sent there.”
There has also been a reduction in the number of judges on the bench. Albeit a slight decrease, the effect is being felt in the number of backlogged cases.
“There is indeed, as pointed out by your lordship, a serious issue regarding the number of judges on the Supreme Court bench. A few years ago, there were nine judges on the bench, including the Chief Justice and now there are seven. We can only expect the backlog to increase. Of the seven judges, a number have passed retirement age and, in accordance with the constitution, have been allowed to continue to serve. The staffing of the Supreme Court bench requires urgent attention and action.”
A major part of the issue at hand is the funding of the judiciary. Instead of an increase in resources, the spigot from which that branch of government is subsidized has been tightened, reducing financial support to a mere trickle.
Wilfred Elrington, Attorney General
“I have the permission of the prime minister to say to your lordship that we too are not happy with the level at which the judiciary is being funded. It certainly cannot be the case that an institution that is so fundamental to our democracy and to our way of life gets a measly one percent of the national budget when the Ministry of Education enjoys some twenty-six percent and they are demanding more. Clearly, we have got to, in fact, look into these issues and rationalize them. The judiciary is absolutely essential for the maintenance and the continuation of our way of life and we need to do everything to ensure that it remains in a healthy state.”