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Jan 17, 2000

Supreme Court opens with optimism

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The faces may change from year to year with justices retiring or leaving and their replacements arriving from abroad or stepping up from the local ranks. New attorneys come to the Bar every few months, but the ceremony which opens the first session of the Supreme Court every year remains bound by tradition. This year, however, both those who preside over the court and those who defend and prosecute the cases seemed to feel that change is in the air. It won’t be easy to improve the sluggish flow of cases or build up eroded public confidence but with a new Chief Justice, a new D.P.P. and a new Attorney General who has carefully laid out his plans for reform, the optimism this morning was contagious. Janelle Chanona reports.

It was ceremony of tradition in full color today as the Supreme Court had it’s official opening for the year 2000. Presiding over the ceremony was the new Chief Justice, Dr. Abdulai Osman Conteh. A man with an impressive background that includes numerous degrees and several ministerial positions in his native Sierra Leone, Conteh says Belize already feels like home. Although recently arrived Conteh is aware of the public perception that the quality of Belizean justice is not all it should be. Conteh promises that under his reign, the scales of justice will be balanced.

Dr. Abdulai Osman Conteh, Chief Justice of Belize

“I intend to personify the image of Lady Justice, blindfolded, wielding the sort of justice impartially without regard for political considerations and I’m sure my other colleagues, if they happen to be sitting on the case, will apply those principles as well.

Every one of the key players I met, assured me they mean to have an independent and impartial judiciary so I am very assured and fortified that that will be it.

I want to give the assurance, take this opportunity to give the assurance that I came here and I undertook this task that the complete understanding that will be given free hand to do work and to do justice according to the law.”

But with the severe backlog of cases in Belize’s courts, delivering justice might be easier said than done. For the next three months, Justice Murray Shanks, imported from London, England, has the sole duty of clearing cases from the calendar.

Justice Murray Shanks

“I’m working from a list that the court has presented me and I’m taking it as it comes but I can assure you that some of the cases on that list are very old and we are already fixing trail dates for February and March and we hope they’ll be dealt with quickly.

At the moment I’m a one-man team. Whether they’ll be anyone coming along side me or replacing me I don’t know. I hope not too many sleepless nights but plenty of work.”

Another newly appointed officer in the legal system is Rory Field, the Director of Public Prosecutions. Field says his main goal is to be fair to the public.

Rory Field, Director of Public Prosecutions

“The idea is basically for me to come in to try to improve the system as it stands at the moment, to concentrate on getting convictions where the evidence warrants it, also to concentrate on looking after anybody who’s facing trial and making sure that they only face the correct charges. So being fair, fair to the defendants and fair to the public, who’s suffered.”

Field admits understaffing is a problem at the D.P.P.’s office but says more lawyers are on the way.

Rory Field

“As I understand it, we will be getting more staff. The effect it appears to have at the moment is not that cases can’t be covered, it’s that we are unable to send Crown Counsel, qualified Crown Counsel into, for instance the Magistrate’s Court. It would be my wish to have enough counsel that when important cases, important to the public, important to the crimes committed occur, that a well qualified lawyer from the Crown Council can go into the Magistrate’s Court and cover those cases, which is something that doesn’t happen at the moment.”

All the new additions might be impressive but will it mean real change? Attorney General Godfrey Smith says during the year, ordinary Belizeans will be able to see differences in the legal system.

Godfrey Smith, Attorney General

“So at some point in time this year, sooner rather than later, we hope to be able to say, look, we’ve successfully dealt with the backlog of cases, anybody who’s case is set down for trial and the case hasn’t been heard, approach the registrar and state what your situation is and let’s clear all the backlog of cases. That’s one thing in which we hope to speed up. As well if you were listening to the Chief Justice’s speech, he mentioned simplifying the whole procedures for dealing with cases in the court. As you know those can be drawn out, much different paperwork and so on. We want to cut away at a lot of that without prejudicing the integrity of the legal system so that cases move along very swiftly. After all, all of us and the justice system exists to serve ordinary people.”

Godfrey isn’t the only one feeling optimistic. President of the Belize Bar Association, Fred Lumor says the members of the association are looking forward to the year ahead.

Fred Lumor, President, Bar Association

“The new enthusiasm is because we are involved both formally and informally in the process of making these changes, so we are making our input. We are not isolated from the Attorney General’s ministry, we are actively consulted by the Attorney General about recommendations that he is bringing up. In fact, senior members of the Bar are consulted on prospective appointments to the bench. We are hoping that once the changes are made and in place on the upper bench, attention will be shifted to the Magistrate’s Court where a lot of cases are dealt with and where justice impacts the public at large.”

Another impact on the public at large is the high cost of legal fees in Belize, forcing many to back off from a court case. Lumor says a new initiative will give legal advice to those who can’t afford it otherwise.

Fred Lumor

“We are also looking forward to working with the Attorney General’s ministry in reforming all areas which need the attention of the public and the Bar, especially legal aid where the less fortunate members of the public need justice but are excluded because of the high cost of justice. I can assure you that each member of the Bar will put in time or contribution towards the legal aid center so that that particular area of concern can also

make some progress.”

For Alberta Perez, called to the Bar only last month, the future looks bright.

Alberta Perez, Attorney at Law

“I’m looking forward to it with a brighter future because well, for me personally, I have been informed that I will be the new director of legal aid clinic and there’ll be some added perks to that post which I am happy for. And I’m looking forward to it with positiveness, great positiveness.”

Included in the pipeline of reform are improvements to the physical layouts of the courts. In addition to basic infrastructure, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Rory Field says more computers, Internet access, a better legal library will make the legal system more efficient. There are fourteen cases scheduled for this session of the Supreme Court. Three are murder cases, while the others include charges of attempted murder, rape, blackmail, manslaughter by negligence and damage to property.

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