Supreme Court emphasizes criminal justice reform in new legal year

The 2015 legal year for Belize’s Judiciary and Magistracy opened with prayer to the Almighty on Monday morning, at the Wesley Methodist Church in Belize City. It is tradition for the Judges, Magistrates, legal staff officers, attorneys senior and junior and other users of the court system, including the press, to gather at its seat on Treasury Lane on the second Monday in January, to hear of the work done in the past year and look ahead to the coming one.

vlcsnap-2015-01-13-06h23m29s78If 2014 was a year of action, as expressed in last year’s address by President of the Bar Association Senior Counsel Eamon Courtenay, then 2015 can be comfortably described as the year of reform, particularly in the long-troublesome Criminal Jurisdiction, which suffers from an inability to obtain convictions in major cases, and apathy on the part of practitioners to enlarge the box they sit in to uphold the rights of all to a fair trial.

Chief Justice of Belize Kenneth Benjamin outlined several initiatives designed to improve in that area, but first we bring you the comments of Attorney General Wilfred Elrington, who approvingly quoted Methodist minister the Reverend Roosevelt Papouloute’s sermon to his special congregation, at the multi-denominational church service on Monday morning. Here are those remarks.

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vlcsnap-2015-01-13-06h24m31s163Wilfred Elrington – Attorney General

“I would like to close with the timely and inspired injunction of Reverend Papouloute, the preacher who in almost the penultimate paragraph of his sermon said, ‘We are to render justice speedily and lovingly.’  I never heard it put that way before, but I think that it is inspired, and the rational for it is perfectly clear.  We are the servants of the people, not their masters, and servants must act with deference, humility, and of course love.”

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Chief Justice Benjamin in his annual report noted the still-high number of persons on remand for major crimes including murder and the relatively low overall conviction rate of 39%, including an abysmal 8% for murder convictions. Part of the issue, he said, stems from a general reluctance on the part of citizens to offer evidence in open court without guarantee for their safety. To this end there will be implementation of special measures designed to ensure such.

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vlcsnap-2015-01-13-06h35m12s150Kenneth Benjamin – Chief Justice

“Protection of witnesses.  A draft Protection of Witnesses Bill awaits Cabinet approval. This legislation will address the plight of vulnerable witnesses, and will provide protective measures for such witnesses and for children, when giving evidence.  The object is to reduce the intimidatory nature of criminal proceedings.  Measures will include the rendering of witnesses anonymous by order of court in rare deserving cases, allowing witnesses to give evidence behind the screen via video link from a remote location ,and to be cross-examined after a pretrial recorded interview.

This will require the procurement and installation of video-link equipment.  For this is a commitment has been given by the CARSI  Initiative of the United States. Department of State”

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The Chief Justice also pointed to new Criminal Procedure Rules designed to limit the amount of time a case spends in the system from arrest to trial in the Supreme Court.

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Kenneth Benjamin

“Criminal Procedure Rules. The most significant step has been the drafting of Criminal Procedure Rules.  These rules prescribe time limits for the disposition of criminal cases, incorporating the principle of active case management by the courts themselves. 

Under the rules no person should await trial in Supreme Court for more that two years, with shorted time limits being applied for persons in custody or remand, and to  Magistrate  Court matters tried summarily.

Adjournments  are to be limited, and the early identification of trial issues will be sought through the completion of pre-trial case management forms. 

As an ultimate sanction, judges and magistrates well be empowered and expected to dismiss cases not ready for trial within the time limit. 

These rules are in the final stage of preparation, and expected to come in force by early February, 2015.”

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The reform is not limited to the courts, as police are expected to clean up their act.

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Kenneth Benjamin

“Police Guidelines on the interviewing and treatment of persons in detention. To address allegations of police brutality and ultimately to boost the number of statements made on the caution being admitted into evidence, the Commissioner of Police is expected to introduce police guidelines.

Say for field interviews, caution statements are to be digitally recorded. The guidelines will also prescribe minimum standards for the care of persons in police custody, and require police officers to make a complete record of their treatment of persons in custody.

These guidelines will replace the judges’ rules and be issued by the Commissioner of Police. This will serve to put matters back into the hands of the police where they rightfully belong. Recording equipment for police stations is being sourced through the Central American Regional Security Initiative of the United States Embassy.”

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A majority of civil division cases were heard and disposed of 2014 but there are still several cases outstanding.

A recurring theme in the Chief Justice’s address was the partnerships the Judiciary made to achieve these goals, most notably with the U.S. government and British High Commission, which have been responsible for providing the funding and training of key legal officers. In the former’s case it is through the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), managed by the U.S. Department of State.

Initiatives to improve juvenile justice as well as the court’s own internal record-keeping processes were also discussed. In terms of staffing, the Court saw one judge depart and three added, all women: Justices Antoinette Moore, Shona Griffith and Sonia Young. Changes in staffing were also seen in the Magistrate’s and Family Courts.
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