The 2020 legal calendar gets underway on January thirteenth and the Attorney Generalís ministry is already looking at possibly replacing as many as five judges, including Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin, in the months ahead.† Thatís because, with the exception of Justice Shona Griffith, they will all be reaching retirement age this year.† As we reported last week, Griffith is stepping down to take up an appointment with the Supreme Court in Barbados, while CJ Benjamin and Justice Courtney Abel will be turning sixty-five in March.† It means that the executive will be actively seeking their replacements and the pool from which the selections will be drawn covers the entire Caribbean region.† According to Attorney General Michael Peyrefitte, an initial meeting was held with the Chief Justice on Monday after which the Prime Minister will also be meeting with him to chart the way forward.† The process, he says, is rather sensitive since all three arms of government function autonomously.

Michael Peyrefitte, Attorney General

ďVery soon it will be five.† Later on, I think itís this year or early next year we have two more justices who will reach the age of sixty-five and we will have to know at that point what we intend to do with those judges.† I had a preliminary meeting with the Chief Justice yesterday and he has informed me that notices have been sent out throughout the Caribbean and locally as well, and more will be done locally to try to seek judges to have an interest in coming to this jurisdiction to practice.† We know for sure that Justice Griffith will leave by the middle of this month to take up a seat in Barbados.† We know that justices Abel and the Chief Justice himself, they both reach retirement age in March.† Yesterday was just a preliminary meeting to map out the challenges that we have and very soon there will be a meeting between the Chief Justice and the Prime Minister and possibly myself again, to discuss where we go forward from here.† Thereís always the option of possibly extending, even if for a short time, those justices who are retiring immediately and with that it would be simpler, but then these judges would have to want to stay.† We would have to go through a process and seek consultation as to whether or not there would be consensus for them staying.† Itís a process and itís delicate.† The executive has to be a part of this selection process and dealing with this matter, while at the same time not even appearing to be interfering in the judiciary.† So weíre walking a very, very delicate line and I would be uncomfortable saying more than what I have just said, other than to say that there will be a meeting very urgently between the Chief Justice and the Prime Minister because there are other issues as well.Ē

Will the Chief Justice Stay On or Proceed to Retirement?

Offering the Chief Justice a contract extension means that government would be prepared to negotiate new terms of agreement to include pay scale and salary, as well as other benefits.† That decision, however, is also contingent upon a vote to be taken by members of the Judicial and Legal Services Commission.† The taskforce is comprised of representatives from the Public Service Commission and the Bar Association, the Solicitor General and CJ Benjamin, himself.† While two persons have expressed interest thus far, the process, says the Attorney General, will be thorough.

Michael Peyrefitte, Attorney General

ďThereís the issue of financing.† Thereís the issue of pay scale and different things that judges may want to be equally protected like most public servants.† Even though they are independent, they do draw from the publicís purse.† So all of those discussions will take place, itís important that we pay attention to it because indeed, having judges in place, especially a Chief Justice, is very important whether it be this current Chief Justice or a new one.† So all that discussion has to take place and we look forward.† We, of course, will encourage local people, local senior counsels to seek an interest in judgeships in Belize.† We know we have two people who have expressed interest and hopefully we will look at everyone carefully and we can make a decision at that point to say, ďLook, we have assessed from the Caribbean.† We have assessed from home and we will look carefully as to who we want to have the Judicial and Legal Services Commission, hopefully choose.† The Public Service Commission has a vote through the chairman.† The Solicitor General has a vote, the current Chief Justice has a vote in terms of that selection process.† It doesnít make it simpler that there is a challenge in the court against the makeup of the Judicial and Legal Services Commission by the bar against the Chief Justice himself, as well as the AGís ministry because you have to sue us whenever you sue anybody who is drawing pay from the public purse.† All of those things make matters complicated.Ē

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