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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.[1]

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.[2]