Senate Debates Judge Time Limits

We report now on the discussion over the Time Limit for Judicial Decisions Bill of 2021. That's the draft piece of legislation that the Briceno Government wants to pass to impose a 6-month time limit on judges. They are trying to avoid the situation left behind by former Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin. He vacated the post without delivering judgments in a significant number of cases.

So, the new government wants to make sure it doesn't happen again. Here now is the back-and-forth between attorney senators, the PUP's Eamon Courtenay, and the UDP's Mike Peyrefitte:

Hon. Eamon Courtenay - Leader of Government Business
"Madam President, the bill before us provides for the setting of time limits for the delivery of judgments. The time limits are 6 months both in the Court of Appeal and in the Supreme Court. And it provides for the time limits for applications not later than 30 days. The mischief this bill is designed to do, Madam President, is to ensure that people who go to court seeking justice are not denied justice by delay. We had the very unfortunate and really outrageous situation of the last Chief Justice leaving the jurisdiction with judgments that had not been completed, and the litigants are before the court now, trying to figure out what to do. This is a part of the reform agenda of the People's United Party."

Hon. Michael Peyrefitte - UDP Senator
"Madam President, I can see what the Government is trying to do, however, as Senator Courtenay, the mischief to be cured. Now, as he said, indeed, the chief mischief-maker, if you want to put it that way has left the jurisdiction. And I don't think that, since that time, we've had any inordinate delays in the delivery of judgments, or have we? I'm thinking that we don't have any backlog in decisions for cases to that level, that we need to pass a piece of legislation like this. There already is the Judicial and Legal Services Commission. You already have the Belize Advisory Council that can take care of judges who are not performing. And then, this is the next thing, Madam President. You can't turn the fire upon the judges like this and don't provide them with the means to deliver their decisions in time, along with continuing to do other cases."

The Ninth Amendment's Meaning

The Senate then turned to the Belize Constitution Ninth Amendment Bill of 2021. That's the piece of legislation tabled by the government to remove sitting judges from office who persistently fail to meet that 6-month deadline for judgments.

Here's what Courtenay and Peyrefitte had to say when this bill came up yesterday:

Hon. Eamon Courtenay - Leader of Government Business
"Madam President, members of the Senate, this amendment to the constitution ties directly with the bill which we just debated. It now adds, as a ground for removing judge for persistently failing to give written decisions and reasons for the decision. So, this is just making sure that under the provisions of the constitution which give independence and security of tenure to judges, new ground is being inserted, tied to if a judge persistently fails to deliver written decisions."

Hon. Michael Peyrefitte - UDP Senator
"Seems like we're picking on judges today, Madam President. It says, notwithstanding that he has attained the age at which he is required by or under this section to vacate his office, a person holding the office of the justice of the Supreme Court, may be permitted to continue in office for so long, after that attaining that age, as may be necessary to enable him to deliver judgments, or to do anything in relation to proceedings that were commenced before him before he attained that age, only for such period as may be stated in an instrument of appointment. My question is, how do you address a situation where a judge retires. She has not completed her judgment. So, you give her 6 months, a year to complete that they have. And what if they don't complete the judgments during that time. Do you just extend them perpetually until they finished? And, and I'm not trying to be cynical, it may not be a bad thing. If I need a job as a judge, and I don't want to come off the payroll, I just keep saying I'm not finished. I'm not finished. I'm not finished."

Senate on Supreme Court Bill

The Senate then turned to two other bills that are also supposed to implement judicial reforms. The first one is called the Supreme Court of Judicature Amendment Bill of 2021.

In that bill, the government wants to give litigants the option to get a decision from a substitute judge, in the event that the judge who heard their case leaves office before handing down a decision. Again, Courtenay and Peyrefitte disagreed, and here's that back and forth:

Hon. Eamon Courtenay - Leader of Government Business
"Once again, Madam President, we are faced with a situation where there are dozens of cases that have been heard and completed before judges who have now retired or have demitted office, and they have not delivered any judgment. What this bill provides for is that the parties can determine that they will agree that another judge will pick up those papers, and hear the case. So, it won't be a whole new retrial. It is just taking the papers, if the parties agree, so as to save expense and to get a judgment. It is a crisis that we're facing. We're trying to provide a way for judgments to be delivered in circumstances where the judge who heard the case is no longer available."

Hon. Michael Peyrefitte - UDP Senator
"I understand what the government is trying to do, Madam President, and I don't immediately resist it, especially since I see, in part B, that the parties must consent. But, I think it would have been better for us to indicate at what stage it would be safe. If you are not yet at case management or pretrial review, or if the trial was tried on paper only, or law only, then I can understand that, Madam President. But, when you have a trial in which the judge has to determine the veracity of a witness, and the judge has to observe that witness' body language and to see and determine if that person is telling the truth or not, I don't think that a judge picking up a case after that point can appreciate what the judge at first saw."

Hon. Eamon Courtenay
"There are many cases, many cases, where the determination is not based on the credibility of the witness. There are many cases where the entire case is conducted on paper, affidavit, witness statements, and witnesses don't turn up. There are many cases, where there are only legal submissions that are way. Without this law, those cases can be tried before a judge, and that judge dies. That judge demits office; that judge disappears."

And the final big change in the court comes by way of the Court of Appeal Amendment Bill 2021. It's a similar idea as the Supreme Court Amendment Bill. The government is trying to give litigants an opportunity to still get a judgment in the event that a member of the panel of judges leaves office before writing his judgment. On that one, the PUP and UDP Senators found the rare common cause:

Hon. Eamon Courtenay
"Madam President, as I alluded to just now, this is absolutely the same thing, now at the Court of Appeal, and if a single judge hears an application, and is no longer in office, you can agree for another judge of the Court of Appeal to give a judgment in that case. If you have a hearing of 3 judges, and one of them demits office, then one of them can agree that the other 2, who have heard the appeal, deliver the judgment, and the judgment would be valid. The parties must consent in both cases."

Hon. Michael Peyrefitte
"I disagree that they are the same, Madam President, and that is why I would support this. I would support the Court of Appeal Amendment readily because, at the Court of Appeal level, you're not dealing with the determination of veracity, based on assessing a witness' behaviour. At the Court of Appeal level, it's all paper. It's all law, at this stage, it can work. So, we're not obstructionist you know, Madam President. So, when it makes sense, we'll support it, man."

At the end of the meeting, all of these bills were passed. They will become law as soon as they get the assent of the Governor-General.

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