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Jan 17, 2022

Opening Ceremony for Judiciary Held Online: Pandemic Challenges Addressed

Michelle Arana

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

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

Dale Cayetano

“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.”


Iliana Swift

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.


Reporting for News Five, I am Paul Lopez

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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