The legal profession and judiciary were out in full regalia this morning for the traditional opening of the Supreme Court. With a new Chief Justice firmly on the bench, there was a different and much softer tone to the speeches this year. While it signals that relationships are on the mend, both bar and bench highlighted that the alarming crime rate has spiked the number of murder cases. News Five’s Isani Cayetano reports.
Isani Cayetano, Reporting
The ceremonial procession of the judiciary along Regent Street this morning, following an ecumenical service held at Wesley Church heralded a new legal year for the courts. The brief parade culminated at the steps of the Supreme Court Building. There, in full ritual splendor, the bar, magistracy and bench assembled before a small gathering near Battlefield Park. The inspection of the guard of honor was conducted soon thereafter before transferring the day’s activity to the Chief Justice’s chamber.
Inside the CJ gave his annual address touching on the issue of crime and violence and the need for the courts to dispense justice impartially.
Kenneth Benjamin, Chief Justice
“Faced with an escalating crime rate it is not an option for the judiciary to proceed as if it is business as usual. Culturally there must be a well considered robust response which meets the expectations of the community while preserving the rights of the accused person as guaranteed by the law under the fundamental rights provisions of the constitution. Victims and families of victims of crime have the same right to justice as have the alleged perpetrators of crime.”
The bar association with its complement of lawyers together with the judiciary form an integral part of the justice system. Jointly they are responsible for fair and timely legal representation as well as the handing down of decisions. In her address, bar president Jacqueline Marshalleck spoke of an increase in the number of cases at the appellate level.
Jacqueline Marshalleck, President, Belize Bar Association
“The bar has noted that more and more cases are being appealed to the Court of Appeal. You, yourself my Lord, noted that there were some seventy-eight cases filed last year on appeal. There is a need to carefully examine whether or not this increase is primarily due to a lack of confidence in the quality of decisions being delivered at the Supreme Court level or whether the number of claims filed in the Supreme Court have significantly increased so there are simply more appeals being taken in the normal course. Perhaps it’s a combination of these and other factors. Whatever the reason or reasons the number of matters that have been set down for appeal has swelled and there is pressure on our Court of Appeal to address the large numbers of appeals in a timely fashion. This matter needs to be addressed sooner rather than later if we wish to avoid a serious backlog in our appeals process.”
Conversely, Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin went on to say that along with a spike in homicide cases comes a shortage of lawyers prepared to defend suspects at taxpayers’ expense.
“The number of cases of murder has become a cause for alarm; however, the ability of the judges of the criminal division to try capital cases has been significantly hampered by the paucity of lawyers available to be assigned to represent the accused persons at the expense of the state. The consensus among the judges is that the tariff was set too low and hardly compensates counsel, in some cases, for even travel expenses, far less for accommodation expenses should the trial be in one of the outer districts northern or southern.”
The new legal year will also see the introduction of trial without jury. Despite initial discord over the subject, more specifically the contents of the 8th Amendment, the legal fraternity supports government’s introductory step to deal with the issue.
“In relation to criminal matters, all of the stakeholders have to bring their A game. The police will have to conduct thorough investigations which are not wholly reliant on eyewitness testimony. Prosecutors have to prepare solid cases that will stand against seasoned defense counsel. 2012 will also usher in the era of trial by judge alone in certain indictable matters and so our judges will come under pressure to prepare a new form of judgment that will stand the test on appeal. In 2011 my Lord the government proposed certain amendments to the Constitution of Belize by way of the 8th Amendment Bill which were intended to address the problems of crime conducted by gangs and also witness protection. The Bar Association applauds the government for its initiative in seeking to address these issues even though we did not agree with some of the contents of the proposed amendments.”
For his part attorney general B.Q. Pitts spoke on behalf of government, reaffirming its position in addressing the perennial matter through legislative changes.
B.Q. Pitts, Attorney General
“This administration is not insensitive to the crime situation and has revisited it from time to time and introduced such legislation with a view to assisting in deterrence in commission of crimes. From my point of view Restore Belize with its many-pronged approach to the problem has been so far successful. It is an ongoing process which does take time and requisite patience. When last I addressed this gathering I referred to certain pieces of legislation which were aimed at addressing the crime situation.”
While there has been tension between the bench and the bar in the past there has also been noticeable improvement in the relationship shared.
“Traditionally, the bar has always played the role of protector of the bench. Under our inherited system of law whenever the bench has come under attack the bar has come to its aid as a countermeasure to preserve the integrity of the judicial system. This symbiosis has long been in place and ought to be alive today as it has been in times gone by. It is on this note that the Bench/Bar Committee will be fully activated in 2012. In this regard the bench will continue its role in ensuring the viability of the practice of law for all attorneys at law who are prepared to abide by the established ethical standards.”
Reporting for News Five, I am Isani Cayetano.
Aside from a new Chief Justice, the new Chief Magistrate, Ann Marie Smith, also made her first appearance at the opening of the January session.