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The Supreme Court Opens, Virtually

If you were out on Regent Street in Belize City last week, you would have seen police or members of the judiciary out rehearsing an event. They were actually pre-recording the Annual, Ceremonial Opening of the Supreme Court. Normally, the press would have been allowed to cover it live, but since Omicron is speeding at an alarming rate, the court decided to work with the Government Press Office and Apex Justice to produce a virtual ceremony.

It was broadcast this morning, and our Daniel Ortiz put together this report on a few of the highlights:

For the 2nd Virtual Opening of the Supreme Court, the judiciary followed the tradition while sprinkling in a bit of novelty here and there in the ceremony.

There was the Ecumenical Service, which paid respect to the many religious and cultural influences in Belize.

The public march, which was carried out mostly by the Guard of Honor, and then the inspection by the Acting Chief Justice.

For the public accounting and the sharing views though, the Judiciary invited comments from multiple new sources.

Fred Lumor - Attorney, Inner Bar
"In case you are amused what Fred Lumor is doing here, please don't be lost to your thoughts, is appearing before the court as counsel and a voluntary subpoena issued by one of the kind lady justices presiding today."

Hon. Patricia Arana - Deputy Registrar, Supreme Court
"We made accommodations to staff to get vaccinated and we are proud to say that 100% of our staff has been vaccinated."

Hon. Melissa Rowley - Deputy Registrar, Court of Appeal
"Even in the midst of a public health crisis, the court of appeal was able to hold 2 successful virtual hearings; one in October in 2020 and the other in October 2021 when it adapted to the virtual environment a course which shall continue until further notice."

Alder Wright - Attorney, Utter Bar
"In this era of social distancing and caution, the court and the legal fraternity have had to grapple with and rethink old modes and modality of engaging, undertaking and delivering legal work."

The Chief Justice's remarks were one of the keynotes, and of course, focused mostly on public accounting. The Acting Chief, Justice Michelle Arana, noted that the Government's attempts to reduce public spending challenged the court to figure out how to dispense justice with fewer resources.

Hon. Michelle Arana - Acting Chief Justice
"The judiciary depends upon the executive to provide its funding. The budgetary allocation for the judiciary for the fiscal year 2021-2022 was 7 million, 981 thousand, 654 Belize dollars reduced from the previous year's budgetary allocation a mere 0.00824% of the entire national budget. This is woefully inadequate. While the judiciary is fully cognizant of the need for cost cutting measures, especially in this era of the covid19 pandemic, it is imperative that this arm of government be funded in a manner that enables us and empowers us to carry out our duties in an effective manner. An over burden, under resource and underfunded judiciary is not conducive to the effective and efficient administration of justice."

The hardship of the COVID pandemic was just as challenging for the judiciary as it was for the rest of the Belizean workers. By its nature, a court is a public place that provides citizens with service, and so, daily exposure to the potentially deadly illness was very high.

Dale Cayetano - Director, Family Court
"These measures pose different challenges as litigants and lawyers are forced to sit apart from one another in an already small cramped court room. The back logs continue to mount resulting in significant case delay, particularly in child protection and custody cases where social officers are required to conduct home visits to complete social inquiry reports."

Hon. Patricia Arana
"That personal touch could no longer be there, but the quality of service had to remain."

So, the court had to adapt by implementing efficiency tactics to limit exposure and keep staff members safe. Also, the court seems to have moved from a mindset that, in its pre-COVID culture, very strict rules would prevent journalists from using cell phones and laptop computers for simple note-taking purposes. All branches of the judiciary have now embraced the use of information technology in the majority of their daily functions.

Hon. Michelle Arana
"APEX has revolutionize our court system while vastly minimizing in person contact."

Dale Cayetano
"The family court adapted rapidly to telephone and video hearing through teams in respond to the pandemic. This help to speed up cases progression and tackle the back log of cases."

Hon. Sharon Frazer - Chief Magistrate
"We also made provisions to allow persons who were charged with trafficking and covid19 related matters to plea guilty by post and then check back with the court on a later date and as it relates to their fines."

Hon. Patricia Arana
"We have rewired our premisses to improve our internet access and to accommodate for virtual courtrooms and we are in the process of expanding the facilities at the Kolbe Foundation to accommodate multiple virtual hearings simultaneously."

The President of the Bar is urging the court to keep some of the progressive, COVID-driven efficiencies in place, even after the pandemic stops being a public health threat.

Iliana Swift - President, Bar Association
"A few years ago court of appeal sessions were held only 3 times annually, 9 weeks out of the year. As we awaited the arrival of judges for in person hearings. These limited court sessions contributed to serious delay in hearings of appeals, for appellants would wait years until their appeals are heard. With the implementation of virtual hearings, the limited court of appeal sessions must be left in 2021."

The Government also announced that it is making moves to give the judiciary more space to work with, and eventually a new headquarters. It's easily apparent that they've outgrown the cramped space available in the iconic - but old - buildings that they're currently housed in.

Hon. Magali Marin-Young - Attorney General
"In the long term, the government fully intends to commence the construction of the judicial complex to provide adequate spatial area for the entire court system to operate with larger court rooms all having state of the art technology. This madam acting chief justice we hope to commence as soon as the economy fully rebounds and we have securely overcome the fiscal crisis."

The court is now open for business, but as you heard, there is strict enforcement of COVID protocols. Visitors are required to show their vaccination cards to the alert security before they can enter.

Channel 7

Opening Ceremony for Judiciary Held Online: Pandemic Challenges Addressed

The official ceremony marking the commencement of the legal year 2022 was held virtually today. Speakers did not shy away from addressing the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, such as the budgetary and personnel constraints, and the growing demand for services across the nation. News Five's Paul Lopez reports.

COVID19 has presented many challenges to the Judiciary in the year 2021. The pandemic affected all areas as was noted by the Acting Chief Justice, the Chief Magistrate and the Director of the Family Court.

Michelle Arana, Chief Justice (A.G.)

"Since the emergence of COVID-19 in Belize in March 2020, our judiciary has had to evolve rapidly to meet the challenges which this clear and present danger poses to the administration of justice in our country. To this end, we in the Ministry have had to adjust by moving court filings and court hearings online, in order to prevent this health hazard from spreading and infecting court users."

Sharon Frazer, Chief Magistrate

"With the continuing of the COVID19 pandemic, the magistrate court continues to serve the public with certain protocols in place. We have had to do several things. We have had to start with continuous sanitization of the frequently used spaces. We had to install shield in the court for an added level of protection for magistrates. We have had to limit the number of persons who enter our very small court; matters that were addressed in chambers are now being addressed in court."

Dale Cayetano, Director of Family Court

"Plexy Glass, social distance, sanitation of hands, health screening, negative test, vaccination cards, and face mask are universal. These measures pose different challenges as litigants and lawyers are forced to sit apart from one another in already small, cramped, court rooms. Court appearances have significantly decreased, as new regulations have made it so that unvaccinated persons could not gain access to the court without a negative COVID test result."

All branches of the Judiciary have had to operate in a hybrid fashion, integrating virtual components into their operations. Iliana Swift, President of the Bar Association, sees this as an opportunity for the Judiciary to evolve and improve.

Iliana Swift, President, Bar Association

"With the threat to our lives, we have been forced to adopt new measures, embracing modern technology, to effectively serve the public. Having developed, and seen how efficiently these new measures can assist with the administration of justice, our view is that several of these measures should remain in place, even when in-person hearings resume safely. A few years ago, court of appeals sessions would occur three times annually, nine weeks out of the year, as we awaited the arrival of judges for in person hearings. These limited sessions contributed to serious delays in hearings of appeals, for applicants would wait years until their appeals are heard. With the implementation of virtual hearings, the limitation Court of Appeals sessions must be left in 2021."

Notwithstanding these challenges, the Judiciary remains under-funded and under-staffed. The budget for the judiciary was decreased by over one and a half million dollars in the last year.

Michelle Arana, Chief Justice (A.G.)

"This is woefully inadequate. While the judiciary is fully cognizant of the need for cost cutting measures, especially in this era of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is imperative that this arm of government be funded in a manner that empowers us and enabled us to carry out our duties in an effective, an overburdened, under resourced and underfunded judiciary is not conducive to the effective and efficient administration of justice."

The Toledo and Corozal Districts were without magistrates for months. The recruitment of five new magistrates to the bench in Belize has helped to bridge that gap.

Michelle Arana, Chief Justice (A.G.)

"These Magistrates bring not only their qualifications in law, but also a collective wealth of relevant practical experience, as former prosecutors, legal aid practitioners, and civil and criminal law practitioners at the private bar from our brother and sister Caribbean nations, which should serve them well as their new roles as magistrates here in Belize. In relation to the Supreme Court, we also continued to function throughout 2021 without our full complement of judges."

Four additional judges have since been hired from within the Commonwealth and appointed to the Supreme Court, for a period of one year. But as the Judiciary continues to address its budgetary and personnel constraints, the demands for its services continue to increase.

Dale Cayetano, Director of Family Court

"The record shows seven hundred and eighty two applications were made under the domestic violence act. And, a total of five twenty eight for maintenance related applications. The other volume of cases arose particularly from other applications touching and concerning child protection, custody, juvenile, matters of access and visitations."

Five hundred and twenty more domestic violence-related cases were taken to the family court in 2021 than in 2020. Over one thousand new civil cases were lodged in the Supreme Court, and eighty-one new criminal indictments. As of December thirty first, three hundred and fifty-five persons remain on remand at the Belize Central Prison; one hundred and eighty-seven of those persons are remanded for murder.

Channel 5

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