Belize Table of Contents
In the Belizean legal system, the judiciary is an independent branch of government. Among the basic legal protections afforded by the constitution to criminal defendants are a presumption of innocence until proven guilty; the rights to be informed of the nature and particulars of the charges, to defend oneself before an independent and impartial court within a reasonable amount of time, and to have the hearings and trial conducted in public; and guarantees against self-incrimination and double jeopardy. In more serious criminal cases, the defendant also has a right to a trial by jury.
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 governor general appoints the other justices, called puisne judges (of which there were two in 1989), "in accordance with the advice of the judicial and legal services section of the Public Service Commission and with the concurrence of the Prime Minister given after consultation with the Leader of the Opposition." Justices may serve until they reach sixty-two, the normal, mandatory retirement age, which may be extended up to the age of seventy. Justices may only be removed for failing to perform their duties or for misbehavior.
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.
Data as of January 1992