Samuel Awich is a Justice of the Belize Court of Appeal, but, tonight, he is under scrutiny. This after a ruling handed down by the Caribbean Court of Justice this morning. The CCJ has ruled that his past conduct while he was a judge of the Supreme Court, is to be investigated. That's because the Ashcroft Alliance has argued that he is unfit to be a judge of the Court of Appeal.
This is an old dispute that dates back all the way to May 2012. That's when Prime Minister Dean Barrow recommended that Awich should be elevated from the Supreme Court to the Court of Appeal, much to the displeasure of the Bar Association of Belize, and the Ashcroft Alliance.
The Government went ahead the appointment which then triggered Dean Boyce, Michael Ashcroft, and his company, British Caribbean Bank, to write a joint letter to the Judicial and Legal Services Commission. In July of 2012, they asked the Commission, which is headed by the Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin, and which acts as an oversight mechanism for all judges in Belize, to request that the Belize Advisory Council investigates Awich.
The Alliance believes that he has not met the minimum standards required to preserve the reputation of the judiciary. They complained bitterly that he had a track record of "excessive delays" in delivering judgments. That, coupled with the fact that there are Appellate court rulings which have criticized Awich's decision making as a trial judge, led them to try and convince the Judicial and Legal Services Commission to trigger the Belize Advisory Council to investigate Awich.
The JLSC dismissed their complaint saying that it was misconceived and premature, since he had already been appointed to the Court of Appeal. The Ashcroft Alliance did not accept that position, and they sued the Commission. In 2014, Supreme Court Justice Courtney Abel ruled in their favor, that the Commission ought not to have dismissed their complaint without first doing a preliminary inquiry.
The Government and the Commission disagreed with the Supreme Court ruling, and so they appealed to the Court of Appeal, which overturned the decision of the lower court last year.
So, if you're following, that's 1 victory for the Alliance, and 1 for the Commission. So, to settle it at the highest court in the land, the Alliance appealed the case at the CCJ.
After weeks of deliberation, the CCJ judges returned this morning with a ruling which they delivered via teleconference from Trinidad. After consideration, the CCJ ruled in the Alliance's favor, and overturned the ruling of the Court of Appeal.
So, the bottom line is that the Judicial and Legal Services Commission is being obliged to review the complaints from the Alliance once again, and this time, that body must do some preliminary investigations. It's significant because Awich's post as a high court judge's post is on the line, and there is a possibility that he could be removed from office.
The determination of that issue is still a long ways off from now, but this morning, we got a chance to speak with Eamon Courtenay, Ashcroft's attorney, right after the teleconference hearing. Here's what he had to say about the win:
Eamon Courtenay, SC - Attorney for Lord Michael Ashcroft
"The court allowed the appeal and set aside the decision of the Court of Appeal. What does that mean? It means that the complaint that has been filed against Justice Awich is to go back to the Judicial and Legal Services Commission for it to consider whether or not they should refer to the Belize Advisory Council. Originally, the complaint was that Mr. Justice Awich should be removed from office because of his inability to perform his functions as the Supreme Court judge, and for misconduct in the performance of that function. Mr. Justice Abel - well, I should say before that, the Judicial and Legal Services dismissed the complaint on the basis that he had already been appointed the Court of Appeal, and therefore, they cannot review his performance, when he was in the Supreme Court. The clients felt that that was wrong, and they took it to Court. Mr. Justice Abel said that any conduct of a judge, prior to his appointment, is relevant, and the Court of Appeal disagreed. And so, it was taken to the CCJ. The CCJ has now ruled that all prior conduct is relevant, and the Judicial and Legal Services must consider the complaint, and to see whether or not a prima facie case has been made out. If there is sufficient evidence of misbehavior or inability to perform, the matter will be sent to the Belize Advisory Council, which shall sit as a tribunal and actually make findings as to whether or not Justice Awich should be removed."
In its judgment, the CCJ criticized the Judicial and Legal Services Commission saying, quote, ""It appears to us…that the Commission precluded itself from any consideration of the matters placed before it on the basis that these matters related to past conduct….This in our view, was an artificial hurdle instituted by the JLSC…to fetter the exercise of its discretion…The JLSC was wrong to adopt that approach."
That's some serious validation of the position from the Ashcroft Alliance, and today, we asked Courtenay about the critics who viewed the alliance's push against Awich as being being frivolous and personal:
"When this particular case came forward initially, there were those who are opponents of Lord Ashcroft, your client, who thought that he was simply picking a fight with the judge just for the sake of it. Can you assure us that that was not the case?"
Eamon Courtenay, SC - Attorney for Lord Michael Ashcroft
"Well, I think the test of that, and the answer to that question that the CCJ has looked at the matter in a very careful way. The Judicial and Legal Services were represented by 3 attorneys in the CCJ, and they made the argument that in fact, what the appellants, my clients and Mrs. Marin Young's client were attempting to do was actually to challenge the appointment in a backdoor way, that in fact that they were dissatisfied that the Prime Minister had appointed Mr. Justice Awich, and that they were trying, in effect, to have him removed. In truth and in fact, what the complaint makes out, and I think what the CCJ has confirmed is that anybody, regardless of who you are, has a right to make a complaint, if you believe that a judge is acting in a particular way, that causes you, or more accurately, the public to lose confidence. I emphasize that because in the case of Justice Awich, the situation, when he was on the Supreme Court, there was a tremendous delay in his writing of decisions. Secondly, there were cases which we identified specifically in the complaint, where he failed to give a fair hearing to litigants. there were cases where one judgment describe his behavior as something that no judge could ever have done. So, there was a real concern, an evidence based concern about the way in which Justice Awich had been performing his function."
"Do you think that this judgment puts all judges on notice?"
Eamon Courtenay, SC
"Well, quite frankly, I think the judgment of the Privy Council in the Mirabucks case put all judges on notice. This judgment simply confirms that there is a process and a procedure in the constitution that makes all judges, regardless of whether you're in the magistracy, all the way up to the CCJ, that you're subject to review, that your performance is subject to review, that you must be accountable, that you must perform in such a way that public confidence is enjoyed, and that public confidence is maintain in the way in which yourself, and the way in which you deliver your judgments."
So, to sum up, the CCJ has allowed the appeal from the Ashcroft Alliance, and the ruling of the Court of Appeal is set aside. The complaint against Awich must be returned to the Judicial and Legal Services Commission for a second time, and finally, the CCJ has awarded costs to the Alliance.
Of important note is that the CCJ steered clear of making any assessment of Awich's conduct as a judge. They CCJ says that Awich's fitness as a judge of the Court of Appeal, must be determined by the JLSC, and the Belize Advisory Council.