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Jan 20, 2003

Supreme Court opens, plans improvements

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The annual show on Regent Street never fails to impress, but this year the judicial system has more to brag about than music and marching. News 5′s Marion Ali reports.

Marion Ali, Reporting

With its traditional spit and polish, the criminal session of the Supreme Court was officially opened today at the Supreme Court in Belize City. And the judiciary’s plans for 2003 appear to be as bright and colourful as the ceremony itself.

Godfrey Smith, Attorney General

“The highpoints of our targets for this year are the commencement of the creation of the judiciary zone, which will see this Treasury Building transform into a modern Magistrates’ Court complex and the pedestrianisation of the precincts around the Supreme Court in the way in which the Court of Appeal has been done; the introduction of civil procedure rules to speed up and fast track cases; the introduction of practice directions to introduce pre-trial conferences; finalizing of the Judiciary Act; and several other matters.”

One such matter has to do with a dress code for legal practitioners appearing before the court, an issue over which one female attorney has already filed a constitutional motion. Attorney General Godfrey Smith says the Bar feels the issue of women in trousers is not a matter that should go to court.

Godfrey Smith

“It’s really a matter for which there should have been some regulations in place, setting out, based on consultation among lawyers what we believe should be the dress code for legal practitioners.”

“The General Legal Council is chaired by the Attorney General. Whoever is the current President of the Bar Association will sit on it as well as four senior practitioners, be they male or female. But I can say that I have no doubt that the General Legal Council, in considering what is the legal dress code, will be very liberal and modern in line with current developments in Belize and indeed in the international legal world.”

Also expected to take effect this year is the appointment of an additional judge to help with a backlog of criminal appeals from the Magistrate’s Court. Another improvement to help expedite the process will include year-round and weekend cases.

Godfrey Smith

“There has been an amendment to the Supreme Court of Judicature Act which will introduce criminal proceedings that run throughout the year. Right now the way it works is that there are sessions that last a specific period of time. To enable the Court to dispose of more criminal cases, this session will run from beginning of the year to the end, as well as a provision for business to be conducted on Saturday if necessary. In case there’s an emergency application, you want to get an injunction against somebody, or freeze assets of somebody who’s about to flee the jurisdiction, this group will be able to do it on a Saturday for instance.”

But this past year’s sessions were not short of controversial cases whose judgements Smith feels exemplified the independence of the judiciary in Belize.

Godfrey Smith

“Like the case involving the land for the Opposition. It expeditiously concluded multi-million-dollar cases having huge ramifications for the financial and economic sector of Belize, like the line of B.T.L. cases and the Chalillo Dam case. Not once throughout any of these cases and proceedings was there even the faintest suggestion of political interference or any question raised as to the integrity, transparency, or fairness of the judgements rendered.”

As far as criminal cases go, Chief Justice Abdulai Conteh said it was a busy year.

Abdulai Conteh, Chief Justice

“For the year 2002 the Supreme Court dealt with the following number of cases of serious crimes: thirty-eight cases of murder; seventeen attempted murder; ten manslaughter cases, thirty-three manslaughter by negligence cases; seven cases of robbery, and twenty cases of rape. The court also dealt with a total of two hundred and five cases of other serious offences like burglary and the like.”

Also up were the figures for divorce cases, appeals and civil cases. The formalities also included two appointments to the status of Senior Counsel. The achievement by Fred Lumor and Philip Zuniga, according to Smith, is far from easy to attain.

Godfrey Smith

“The qualities looked for include legal intellectual and advocacy skills, professional integrity and standing, maturity and a high quality practice…Applicants for elevation to Senior Counsel will be held to the highest standards of forensic skill, advocacy, and practice. I say this not to deter ambitious juniors, but rather to remind you that standing and leadership as a Senior Counsel at the Bar is earned. It is not drawn out of a barrel by chance like the Sunday lottery.”

To make the process more transparent, rules will be enacted in the first quarter of this year that will set out the rights and obligations of Senior Counsel, as well as guidelines for achieving that status. Marion Ali for News 5.

Later this year Belize will host the Annual Conference of Chief Justices of the Commonwealth Caribbean. Present at today’s official opening were President of the Guatemalan Supreme Court, Justice Carlos Ochaeta and Justice Maria Luciano.

Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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