Belize (formerly British Honduras) is an independent Commonwealth country on the eastern coast of Central America. Belize is bordered on the north by Mexico, on the south and west by Guatemala, and on the east by the Caribbean Sea.
Type of system
Belize is a parliamentary constitutional monarchy. The structure of government is based on the British parliamentary system, and the legal system is modeled on the common law of England. The symbolic head of state is Queen Elizabeth II, who holds the title Queen of Belize. The Queen resides in the United Kingdom, and is represented in Belize by the Governor-General. Executive authority is exercised by the cabinet, which advises the Governor-General and is led by the Prime Minister of Belize, who is head of government. Cabinet ministers are members of the majority political party in parliament and usually hold elected seats within it concurrent with their cabinet positions.
The bicameral National Assembly of Belize is composed of a House of Representatives and a Senate. The 31 members of the House are popularly elected to a maximum five-year term and introduce legislation affecting the development of Belize. The Governor-General appoints the 12 members of the Senate, with a Senate president selected by the members. The Senate is responsible for debating and approving bills passed by the House.
Legislative power is vested in both the government and the Parliament of Belize. Constitutional safeguards include freedom of speech, press, worship, movement, and association. The judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature.
Members of the independent judiciary are appointed. The judicial system includes local magistrates grouped under the Magistrates' Court, which hears less serious cases. The Supreme Court (presided by the Chief Justice) hears murder and similarly serious cases, and the Court of Appeal, hears appeals from convicted individuals seeking to have their sentences overturned. Defendants may, under certain circumstances, appeal their cases to the Caribbean Court of Justice.
The Legal Aid Situation
State-sponsored legal aid
On November 27 1981 the Legal Aid Center was opened in Belize City to serve the legal needs of the poor. The Center administers legal aid and provides legal advice, assistance, referral and representation for those who are eligible. The center is geared towards low-income persons who meet eligibility guidelines and handles a full range of case types and services. General cases include family, land, civil and estate matters. Murder, civil matters that exceed $20,000, and company and other commercial matters are excluded from the center's jurisdiction.
The type of service provided by the center depends largely on the type of legal problem facing the individual client. Most clients get immediate advice on their problem, including things they could do in order to resolve the problem on their own. Others are referred to an agency or service which can more appropriately resolve their immediate crisis or long-term problems.
The Center is governed by a local Board of Directors. While initially 51% of this Board was comprised of Bar Association Members, today the Bar Association makes up the entire Board. While the Center is usually staffed by one full-time attorney, a secretary, and an office manager, at present only an office manager is on staff at the Center. It is reported that the Bar Association has plans to implement a mandatory roster system at the center to ensure that an attorney is present at all times.
The Legal Aid Center was initially funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Caribbean Justice Improvement Project (CJIP), the Canadian University Services Overseas (CUSO), and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Today, the Center is funded completely by the Bar Association. There is also a $20 consultation fee, which is discretionary and is based on the matter at hand and the person's financial capability. This assists with the operational expenses. The Legal Aid Center is located in the Sir Albert Staine Building, 1 Treasury Lane, Belize City.
Supreme Court legal aid
In capital cases, legal aid is provided by the Registrar of the Supreme Court. In such cases, the Registrar appoints an attorney to act on the accused's behalf. The maximum fee paid to such attorney is $1,000 BZE, which covers a retainer fee as well as a per diem allowance.
Sources of Defendant's Rights
The Constitution of Belize recognizes and protects a range of rights. The preamble to the Constitution states that “the Nation of Belize is founded upon, among other things, the principles of faith in human rights and fundamental freedoms and the dignity of the human person and the equal and inalienable rights to which all members of the human family are endowed.”
This is set out principally in Part II of the Constitution which details the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms – including that of defendants. Section 3 (of Part II) provides as follows and sets out the framework for other fundamental rights and freedoms:
3. Whereas every person in Belize is entitled to the fundamental rights rights and and freedoms of the individual, that is to say, the right, whatever his race, place of origin, political opinions, colour, creed or sex, but subject to respect for the rights and freedoms of others and for the public interest, to each and all of the following, namely:
a. life, liberty, security of the person, and the protection of the law; b. freedom of conscience, of expression and of assembly and association; c. protection for his family life, his personal privacy, the privacy of his home and other property and recognition of his human dignity; and d. protection from arbitrary deprivation of property.
Basic human rights particular to defendants that are protected include:
- The presumption of innocence (until proven guilty); - The right to be informed of the nature and particulars of the charges; - The right to defend oneself before an independent and impartial court within a reasonable amount of time; - The right to have the hearings and trial conducted in public; - The right against self-incrimination and double jeopardy and, in more serious cases, right to a trial by jury.
Sections 5(2), 5(3) and 5(4) of Part II of the Constitution in particular regulates as follows:
5(2) Any person who is arrested or detained shall be entitled:
a) to be informed promptly, and in any case no later than forty-eight hours after such arrest or detention, in a language he understands, of the reasons for his arrest or detention; b) to communicate without delay and in private with a legal practitioner of his choice and, in the cue of a minor, with his parents or guardian, and to have adequate opportunity to give instructions to a legal practitioner of his choice; c) to be informed immediately upon his arrest of his rights under paragraph (b) of this subsection; and d) to the remedy by way of habeas corpus for determining the validity of his detention.
5(3) Any person who is arrested or detained:
a. for the purpose of bringing him before a court in execution of the order of a court; or b. upon reasonable suspicion of his having committed, or being about to commit, a criminal offence under any law, and who is not released, shall be brought before a court without undue delay and in any case not later than seventy-two hours after such arrest or detention.
5(4) Where any person is brought before a court in execution of the order of a court in any proceedings or upon suspicion of his having committed or being about to commit an offence, he shall not be thereafter further held in custody in connection with those proceedings or that offence save upon the order of a court.
The Belize Criminal Code
The Belize Criminal Code (Chapter 101 of the Laws of Belize) is a codification of criminal law, definitions, interpretation and criminal law applicable in Belize. It is more substantive than procedural.
Belize is party to and has ratified a number of international legal instruments that forms the source of defendant’s rights, including (but not limited to):
- The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR);
- The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW);
- The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD);
- The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC);
- The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).
THE JUDICIAL SYSTEM
In the Belizean legal system, the judiciary is an independent branch of government.
The Supreme Court sits in its Civil Division in Belize City and in three Districts sits in its criminal jurisdiction namely:
1. The Northern District (comprising the Districts of Corozal and Orange Walk); 2. The Central District (comprising the Districts of Belize City and Cayo) ; 3. The Southern District (comprising the Districts of Stann Creek and Toledo).
The administration of the Supreme Court of Belize is directed by the Chief Justice and the Registrar General.
Each of the six districts has a Summary Jurisdiction Court, which hears criminal cases, and a District Court, which hears civil cases. Both types of court of first instance are referred to as magistrates' courts because their presiding official is a magistrate. These courts have jurisdiction in less serious civil and criminal cases, but must refer to the Supreme Court more serious criminal cases, as well as any substantive legal questions. Magistrates' courts may impose fines and prison sentences of up to six months. Finding suitable magistrates has proven difficult, even though magistrates need not be trained lawyers. Vacancies have contributed to a backlog of cases and many prolonged acting appointments, a situation which, critics charge, has opened the courts to political manipulation. Law students returning to Belize for summer vacation or retired civil servants often fill the vacancies.
The Supreme Court has unlimited original jurisdiction in both civil and criminal proceedings. In addition to the more serious criminal and civil cases, the Supreme Court hears appeals from the magistrates' courts. The governor general appoints the head of the Supreme Court, the chief justice, "in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister given after consultation with the Leader of the Opposition.
The Court of Appeal hears appeals from the Supreme Court. A president heads the Court of Appeal. The governor general appoints the president and the two other justices serving on the court "in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister given after consultation with the Leader of the Opposition." The constitution sets no fixed term of office for these justices but provides that their terms of office be fixed in their instruments of appointment.
In cases involving the interpretation of the constitution, both criminal and civil cases may be appealed by right beyond the Court of Appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London. The Court of Appeal may also grant permission for such appeals in cases having general or public importance. The crown may grant permission for an appeal of any decision--criminal or civil--of the Court of Appeal.
RIGHTS OF THE ACCUSED AT ALL TIMES
Right to counsel
Whenever a police officer has arrested or detained a person, he must immediately inform that person that he is entitled to speak privately with an instruct a lawyer or, if the person is a minor, to speak with his parents or guardians (Rule 3 of the Belize Judge’s Rules and section 5(2)(b) of the Constitution).
Section 6(5) of the Constitution protects defendant’s against double jeopardy and determines that “a person who shows that he has been tried by a competent court for a criminal offence and either convicted or acquitted shall not again be tried for that offence or for any other criminal offence of which he could have been convicted at the trial for that offence, save upon the order of a superior court in the course of appeal or review proceedings relating to the conviction or acquittal.”
Presumption of innocence
Every defendant has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty by virtue of section 6(3)(a) of the Constitution: “Every person who is charged with a criminal offence shall be presumed to be innocent until he is proved or has pleaded guilty.”
Capital punishment is still, legally and de jure, applicable in Belize by virtue of section 4(1) of the Constitution: “A person shall not be deprived of his life intentionally save in execution of the sentence of a court in respect of a criminal offence under any law of which he has been convicted.”
The above section breaches section 3(a) of the Constitution that guarantees the right to life.
The last execution in Belize took place in 1985 when one prisoner was executed for murder by hanging and in 2015 the last man in Belize on death row, Glenford Baptist, had his sentence overturned and commuted to life in prison by the Belizean Supreme Court.
Thus, although the death penalty is still law in Belize, it has been under intense pressure to change its provisions (and constitution) on the death penalty since it is obligated to bring its domestic legislation into line with the provisions of not only the ICCPR but also other international legal instruments that it ratified.
Fair trial rights
This includes, inter alia, the following:
1. If any person arrested or detained as mentioned in subsection (3) (b) of the Constitution is not tried within a reasonable time, then without prejudice to any further proceedings that may be brought against him, he shall, unless he is released, be entitled to bail on reasonable conditions (Section 5(5) of the Constitution).
2. Section 6(1): All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law.
3. If any person is charged with a criminal offence, then, unless the charge is withdrawn, the case shall be afforded a fair hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial court established by law (Section 6(2) of the Constitution).
4. According to section 6(3) of the Constitution:
Every person who is charged with a criminal offence:
(a) shall be presumed to be innocent until he is proved or has pleaded guilty;
(b) shall be informed as soon as reasonably practicable, in a language that he understands, of the nature and particulars of the offence charged;
(c) shall be given adequate time and facilities for the preparation of his defence;
(d) shall be permitted to defend himself before the court in person or, at his own expense, by a legal practitioner of his own choice;
(e) shall be afforded facilities to examine in person or by his legal representative the witnesses called by the prosecution before the court, and to obtain the attendance and carry out the examination of witnesses to testify on his behalf before the court on the same conditions as those applying to witnesses called by the prosecution; and
(f) shall be permitted to have without payment the assistance of an interpreter if he cannot understand the language used at the trial.
5. Section 6(6) of the Constitution: A person who is tried for a criminal offence shall not be compelled to give evidence at the trial.
6. Section 7: No person shall I be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading punishment or other treatment.
The Court of Appeal of Belize was established under section 94 of the Constitution of Belize (and Chapter 4 of the Laws of Belize, Revised Edition, 2000). It exercises appellate jurisdiction with power to hear and determine appeals in both civil and criminal matters.
After this, appeals are to the Supreme Court of Belize with jurisdiction to hear civil and criminal matters as well as appeals from the lower Courts.
According to the US Country Report on Human Rights Practices (2007) prison conditions are extremely poor in Belize. There is only one prison in Belize, the Hattieville Central Prison, and it is designated to hold a maximum of 1,200 prisoners. In addition to overcrowding, some other reported issues include brutalization on the prisoners by prison officials, withholding of food and water as punishment, conducted strip searches and beatings, and the extortion of money for transfers to better conditions.
Pre-trial detainees are held separately from convicted/sentenced inmates, and only male juveniles are to be held in this prison. Female juveniles who are charged or convicted are not incarcerated by the Belize government, instead they are placed in the care of the government social services authorities. Although male juveniles are incarcerated and held at the Hattieville Central Prison, they live in a separate facility which is located outside the main perimeter fence.