Belize Senate approves Caribbean Court of Justice
Source: Belize News
Published : 26/02/2010
The Senate on Tuesday passed the Belize Constitution 7th Amendment Bill in order to abolish the Privy Council as Belize’s final court of appeal.
The constitutional amendment would also enable Prime Minister Dean Barrow, the head of Cabinet, to appoint an Attorney General from outside both houses of Parliament – the House of Representatives and the Senate.
The Opposition People’s United Party did not support the amendment; however, the vote was carried by the senators for the ruling United Democratic Party, the churches and the business community.
During the voting one of the ruling party’s senators Eddie Webster called for a division, so that individual votes could be recorded. It was revealed that 8 out of 12 senators had voted ‘yes,’ while 2 voted ‘no’ (PUP Senators Carolyn Trench-Sandiford and Corona Villafranco), and 2 abstained (Paul Perriott for the trade unions and the PUP’s Lisa Shoman, SC). The Belize Constitution 7th Amendment Bill is now ready to be signed into law by the Governor-General.
However, the Senate decided to hold the accompanying amendments to the CCJ Bill, which will remain in committee for further clarifications, according to the Leader of Government Business Douglas Singh. The Privy Council Appeals Act is also being repealed.
PUP Senator Lisa Shoman said that the removal of Section 4 of the 7th Amendment Bill, which would have enabled persons with dual nationality to join Parliament, was “a triumph of people power.”
“It means that people power is alive, is well and is effective,” she commented.
The more welcomed aspect of the bill is the removal of the Privy Council in the United Kingdom as Belize’s final appellate court. The Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) will assume that jurisdiction.
The CCJ, a judicial tribunal for the Caribbean, was established on February 14, 2001, under the Agreement Establishing the Caribbean Court of Justice, which was appended to today’s amendments.
Of note is that Belize was among the original signatories to that agreement to establish the court, which was inaugurated in April 2005 in Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago.
Senator Godwin Hulse, representing the business community, commented that the normal practice in other jurisdictions when governments make such changes to the Constitution is for a white paper to be circulated.
Shoman concurred that “...having a white paper and allowing wide debate, while things can still be changed, is important.” She noted that Belize had previously had only 5 amendments to the Constitution in the 27 years after the Law came into being, in the year of Independence.
Hulse noted that, as things now stand, the Prime Minister can draw up to four ministers from the Senate.
We note that the former administration of Said Musa had availed itself of that option, appointing, for example, Foreign Affairs ministers from the pool of their Senate appointees.
The Barrow administration has given ministerial posts to only elected politicians of the House of Representatives, and no Senators have, over the first two years of the administration, been endowed with ministerial posts.
The more contentious part of the Belize Constitution 7th Amendment Bill is the Attorney General appointment.
Senator Hulse raised the key issue of accountability: The changes in the Attorney General appointment, noted Hulse, would mean that he or she would fall outside the requirement for filings of assets and holdings under the Prevention of Corruption in Public Life Act.
Hulse noted that the Government doesn’t yet have a structure in place for members of Cabinet who are not members of either house of Parliament to be put on the spot by colleagues in “questions to ministers,” a routine segment of House meetings. The 6th amendment to the Belize Constitution, now on hold, should have come before, because it would enable the Senate to summon the Attorney General to answer questions of concern, he explained.
“It is clear that accountability and answerability of any member of Cabinet is something that is not only to be desired, but to be demanded and expected by the people of Belize,” added Senator Shoman.
“While it is in the vein of beginning to select ministers from outside [Parliament], it should have been part of a comprehensive package,” commented Senator Hulse.
Hulse also pointed to statements made at Friday’s House Meeting by the present Attorney General Wilfred Elrington, indicating that he welcomes being relieved of that part of his portfolio, which also includes foreign affairs and foreign trade.
The Senator noted that “...if he didn’t have experience in foreign affairs or foreign trade, the one place he has experience in is the legal profession which is what the Attorney General is, because he is a former judge of the Supreme Court, former Magistrate, Crown Counsel, Senior Counsel, and Senior Attorney. That would be the one job that he would want to retain or, for that matter, that the government would seek for him to retain which would be the Attorney General.”
Hulse asserted: “I still think that the amendment is devoid of an explanation from government as to why it is so important and urgent.”
According to Senator Singh, the Prime Minister has committed that he won’t have the 6th Amendment Bill to the Belize Constitution signed into law until all legal issues are addressed.
Apart from approving the amendments to the Belize Constitution, the Senate also approved a loan motion for $3.48 million from the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) for a Rural Belize River Valley water project. The loan, said Singh, is to be repaid in 18 equal quarterly payments starting 10 years after date of signing, and it accrues 2.5% interest per annum, to be paid quarterly on outstanding balance. There is no commitment fee, and the loan is to be fully disbursed by 2011, added Singh.
Senator Godwin Hulse, representing the private sector, said that the program had been budgeted by the government for 10 consecutive years, and it is gratifying to see that it will finally happen.
“This is the kind of loan we should have for development projects,” expressed Senator Hulse.
The Leader of Government Business laid on the table a paper on the Village Council Election Regulations 2009, regulations that would remove the administration of the village council elections from the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Local Government and give it to the Elections and Boundaries Commission, as well as to make provisions for the administration of these upcoming elections.
Singh said that the regulations had already been published in the Government’s Gazette by the Ministry and was only being laid before the Senate for their information. Therefore, no amendments could be made at that point, said Singh.
At Tuesday’s Senate meeting, the senators also approved the re-appointment of two Supreme Court justices past the retirement age of 65. Oswell Legall’s re-appointment has been approved for three years, beginning June 7, 2010. (Legall, a native of Guyana, joined the Belize judiciary in January, 2009.)
The Senate also approved another short appointment for Supreme Court Justice Troadio Gonzalez, from March 1, 2010 to August 31, 2010. (Gonzalez’s term ends this month.)
Also approved were the Refrigeration and Technician Licensing Bill, for the licensing of refrigeration and air-conditioning technicians; and the International Foundation Bill, for the establishment, operation and regulation of international foundations.