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Jan 16, 2017

The Legal Year Opens with New A.G. and Bar Prez But Same Problems

The 2017 opening ceremony of the Supreme Court took place this morning; the proceedings started with a service at the historic Saint John’s Cathedral after which the judiciary and Bar members headed to the other equally historic building, the Supreme Court on Regent Street. After the pageantry of the inspection of the guard of honor, it was for the Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin and new Attorney General Michael Peyrefitte to provide insights of the state of the courts. News Five’s Isani Cayetano reports.

 

Isani Cayetano, Reporting

The coming together of the bench and the bar to mark the commencement of the legal year also serves as an opportunity for the judiciary to provide an update on developments in the court system.  Since January 2016, there have been significant changes within the branch of government which dispenses justice, including the appointment of a new Attorney General.  This morning, inside the Chief Justice’s courtroom, former Speaker of the House, Michael Peyrefitte, made his first public appearance as Belize’s chief legal officer, before an audience of his peers in that fraternity.

 

Michael Peyrefitte

Michael Peyrefitte, Attorney General

“My Lord, if there is one message I want us to get from me is that from this day on the Attorney General’s door is open, wide open.  Open for good ideas and for people who will take action and not just talk.  For too long, some of us have criticized the status quo but refuse to be a part of the change.  So I don’t want any more senior counsels to tell me we need more and better judges without telling me that they are offering themselves to sit on the bench and serve this nation.”

 

Leaving the country to sit on the bench elsewhere within the Eastern Caribbean jurisdiction was Senior Counsel Godfrey Smith.  He has since taken up an appointment as judge of the High Court in St. Lucia.  Meanwhile, here in Belize, the state of affairs, as it relates to criminal matters being heard before the Supreme Court, is rather depressing.

 

Kenneth Benjamin

Kenneth Benjamin, Chief Justice

“The list of criminal cases in the central district remains at unacceptably high levels.  The northern session has experienced an all-time low number on the list.  Of this, euphoria was short-lived, as it became apparent that this was attributable to the lack of the processing of preliminary inquiries from the magistrate’s court in Orange Walk and Corozal.  The southern district has seen its case below from in the region of ten cases or less to a record fifty-four cases pending as of December 2016.”

 

The number of inmates presently on pretrial detention is also staggering.  Of the almost five hundred prisoners on remand, over two hundred are being held for murder.

 

Kenneth Benjamin

“As of December 31st, 2016, the population of persons awaiting trial in the central prison stands at four hundred and seventy-five.  Of that number, one hundred and forty-six have been in custody for in excess of two years.  Two hundred and forty-nine inmates or fifty-two percent are charged for murder.  It remains a serious cause for concern that the remand population is disproportionately high.  In an effort to address this situation, I have sought from the Attorney General’s ministry budgetary support in the new financial year 2017/2018 for the engagement of three additional judges for the criminal division for a fixed period with a view to tackling the cases that are outstanding for more than two years.”

 

While another three judges will be elevated to the bench in the coming months, the objective, according to AG Peyrefitte, is to do away with the high number of persons on remand.  Of that population, approximately one hundred and forty-six inmates are languishing behind bars for the past two years.

 

Michael Peyrefitte

“What we intend to do in 2017 is to eliminate all those on remand from simply being on remand without having a trial, or at the very least put a huge dent in it.  It is a problem.  We have recognized it, the Chief Justice has recognized it and we are trying to put things in place so that by next year this time we can happily report that that has been seriously, seriously put a dent into or eliminated altogether.”

 

Priscilla Banner

Criminal and penal matters aside, the turnout of lawyers for today’s ceremonial opening of the Supreme Court was pretty anemic.  Is the Bar Association of Belize still reeling from the revision of the Legal Profession Act of September 2014?

 

Priscilla Banner, President, Bar Association

“Albeit the amendment to the Legal Profession Act to render the Bar Association non-compulsory was not made last year, the bar is still feeling the impact of this change.  We now have approximately eighty to ninety active bar members.  It cannot be gain say that the direct and undoubtedly foreseeable consequence of rendering the bar non-compulsory was a weakening of its membership.”

 

Reporting for News Five, I am Isani Cayetano.

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