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Jul 30, 1998

N.C.F.C. explains new family and children laws countrywide

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It is part of a nationwide series of workshops to let Belizeans know just how new legislation will effect the country’s families. This morning I dropped in on a seminar at the Radisson to see how things have changed and why.

Four years ago, the National Committee for Families and Children was formed to advise government on issues that are affecting those two critical groups. The committee is also charged with overseeing government’s fulfilling of its commitments under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. There are fifty-four articles of the C.R.C., all having to do with the protection of children, making provisions for their basic needs and making sure they participate fully in all decisions which affect them. In 1996 the N.C.F.C. started examining the legislation governing children and families, to determine whether the laws conformed to the Convention. Dr. Winston McCalla, the Jamaican legal consultant, contracted by N.C.F.C. to do the work, says there were a number of concerns.

Dr. Winston McCalla, Legal Consultant, N.C.F.C.

“I think the first issue was how far did it conform with the convention, the C.R.C. Convention. The second thing itself was that the legislation in some cases, were outdated and we wanted to have legislation that could be more flexible, that could cater to the changes that were needed and then, in some cases, there were specific issues. Like in the issue of adoption, where there was a concern that the legislation did not reflect what was really needed to protect children.”

But before there could be legal reform for families and children, the Committee first had to discuss the matter with those most effected: the people themselves. This meeting took place in 1996, in the form of a nationwide consultation.

Elaine Middleton, Executive Director, N.C.F.C.

“Well, we started these consultations from late 1996 through to 1997 and we consulted a wide cross section of the community. Teachers, nurses, policemen, the regular members of the community, PTAs young people – as many people as we could get a hold of. And we had these consultations with us, for them to say to us, what they saw, in what ways we could improve the laws that affect them as families and children.”

Following the consultations in December of 1997, the recommendations were then included in a draft Families and Children’s Bill. Five months later that bill was presented to the government for consideration. It has since been passed into law and Belize now has its first ever comprehensive Families and Children Act, 1998.

According to Elaine Middleton, N.C.F.C.’s Executive Director, a piece of legislation cannot be effective if the people don’t know about it. To spread the word, the Committee has embarked on a series of workshops on the new Act, and today they sat down with a number of N.G.O.’s and government departments to discuss the new piece of legislation. One important change is that the standard fifty dollar per week maintenance fee for children can now be varied to suit each particular case. Dr. McCalla explains.

Dr. Winston McCalla

“One, the fifty dollar sort of froze the amount and that it, while it would be reasonable in many cases, there might be other cases where it was unreasonable. And so in fact, you do have cases where men are paying above the fifty dollars voluntarily but it can’t be enforced. So we felt that since this legislation will be in existence for a long time, it’s important to leave the judges with more flexibility. So they could first of all adjust the amount depending on the circumstances and then you know in five, ten years time, fifty dollars may be a very small amount due to inflation if there is such inflation.”

Other laws that were revised and incorporated in the new Act are:

the Adoption of Children Act, the Children Born out of Wedlock Act,

Infants Act, Legitimacy Act and the Status of Children Act. Guiding principles were also introduced in the New Act, to steer the courts and government as to how they should deal with children.

Dr. Winston McCalla

“For example, one thing in the guiding principle when dealing with children, like a court, time is of the essence. So court matters relating to children so far if possible, be expeditiously dealt with. Secondly, another guiding principle was that the child’s best interest in all matters, is of paramount consideration for the courts, so whenever the courts are going to look at any issue they will have to look at that. Another area is to create more comprehensive provisions for the care and supervision of children. The courts can now order a supervision order, a care order in appropriate cases, if that is necessary.”

In the area of adoption, separate sets of guidelines have been made for adoption by Belizeans and foreigners.

McCalla says that there is still room for some fine tuning in the law and expects that following the countrywide workshops some recommendations for minor changes will be made.

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