Leader of the Opposition Bharrat Jagdeo will at the request of President David Granger attend a meeting on Wednesday to discuss the possible appointment of Chief Justice of Belize, Kenneth Benjamin as Chancellor of the local judiciary.
Speaking with the Sunday Stabroek yesterday, Jagdeo said that he had received a letter from Granger early last week requesting that he attend a meeting on Friday December 29. The letter indicated that Justice Benjamin had been recommended for the post of Chancellor while the acting Chancellor, Justice Yonette Cummings-Edwards is being considered for the substantive post of Chief Justice.
Justice Roxane George, SC is currently the acting Chief Justice. Both women were appointed in March this year as part of a temporary arrangement between Granger and Jagdeo. Their predecessors, Justices Carl Singh and Ian Chang SC both retired without being substantively appointed Chancellor and Chief Justice, respectively.
The meeting was at Jagdeo’s request rescheduled for Wednesday January 3 since he was unavailable. The Leader of the Opposition noted that the résumés of the two individuals were delivered with the invitation.
He declined to share any opinions about the suitability of the nominees until after his meeting with Granger.
Article 127 (1) of the Constitution stipulates that “the Chancellor and the Chief Justice shall each be appointed by the President, acting after obtaining the agreement of the Leader of the Opposition.”
President Granger revealed during his recent press conference that the person proposed for the position of Chancellor had accepted the nomination and Jagdeo would be consulted. He did not at that time release the person’s identity nor indicate where the person currently resided.
He had however recalled that while he was Leader of the Opposition, he had met with then President Donald Ramotar but they could not agree on nominations and as such he (Granger) proposed a formula which entailed that the positions be advertised especially in the Anglophone Caribbean. He said that Ramotar did not accept that formula but after taking office in 2015, he implemented it and as a result a panel of eminent jurists interviewed some persons who were interested in being appointed to the two posts.
The panel comprises retired justices Claudette Singh and James Patterson along with former University of Guyana Vice-Chancellor Harold Lutchman. After reviewing the applicants, the panel’s task was to recommend the most suitable candidates to Granger.
Granger said that nominations were made and that contact was made with those persons. Specifically as it relates to the position of Chancellor, he said that that person has accepted his nomination and that government was now looking “at the modalities for the termination of the work he is doing now in the country of residence”.
That statement raised eyebrows as it seemed to suggest that Granger was determined to appoint Justice Benjamin even though he first required the approval of Jagdeo.
The long absence of a substantive Chancellor and Chief Justice has been a cause for concern in the legal fraternity both local and regional.
Delivering the keynote address at the 37th Annual Bar Dinner last month, the CCJ President Sir Dennis Byron had said it was disappointing that no substantive Chancellor has been appointed after Justice Desiree Bernard’s departure and noted that having both offices being led by judges acting in respective capacities is “a most unfortunate state of affairs.”
Jagdeo too had recently commented on the situation noting that it was the president who has to make the first move to resolve the decade-long failure to appoint a substantive Chancellor and Chief Justice and he warned that he will not allow himself to be coerced into accepting nominees just to fix the situation.
“Now we have two persons who are acting in the position(s). As you would recognize, this is not a new situation. It’s not desirable but it’s how it has been for a long time in our history… just to have a substantive nominee. I am not going to promise now that any names that the president submits to me, that I will automatically give my approval for those names,” Jagdeo told this newspaper.
According to the Belize Judiciary website, Justice Benjamin received his legal training from the University of the West Indies and the Hugh Wooding Law School in Trinidad and Tobago. It stated that he returned to Guyana where he practised privately, and served as a Magistrate and the Assistant Judge Advocate for the Guyana Defence Force.
Additionally, Justice Benjamin, served on the Court of Appeal in the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court sitting in both St. Lucia and St. Vincent. He also served as the Presiding Judge for the Criminal Division of the High Court in St. Lucia and the High Court Judge in Antigua, British Virgin Islands and Grenada.
Prior to his CJ appointment in Belize in 2011, he served as Chief Magistrate in Antigua and Barbuda. Justice Benjamin, the website said is a member of the Commonwealth Magistrates and Judges Association, a former Rotarian, a former cricket executive in Antigua and a Fellow of the Commonwealth Judicial Education Institute.
Since it had become known that Justice Benjamin might be nominated to the post of Chancellor, his record as the Chief Justice in Belize has come under scrutiny. Justice Benjamin has had a backlog of judgments in the CARICOM member and Central American state. This has put him at odds with the bar association there.
It was recently reported in the Belize media that despite assurances Justice Benjamin will be unable to deliver all 32 of his delayed judgments and this could result in the Belize Bar Association making good on its threat to file proceedings to have him removed from office for misconduct.
Amandala newspaper in a December 12 publication reported that Justice Benjamin will be unable to conclude the backlog by the end of the legal year.
“The old maxim that `justice delayed is justice denied,’ has once more come to the forefront as it relates to the delayed judgments of Chief Justice Benjamin, some of which date as far back as 2010 and will not be completed by the end of the legal year next month, when the Supreme Court has its ceremonial opening to mark the beginning of the 2018 legal year”, the newspaper said.
Based on questions from another media outfit, News5, Attorney General (AG), Michael Peyrefitte indicated that it would have been too difficult for the CJ to complete all 32 judgments within the limited timeframe. The CJ had indicated that he would have completed the backlogged cases by December 15.
“But a couple weeks ago, he told me that he had full intention of completing at least twenty-two of them. Yesterday, he told me that he did complete twenty-two of the judgments, and so he is still ten short; but out of the thirty-two, we can say that he has concluded a significant number of those judgments,” Peyrefitte was quoted as saying.
Peyrefitte added, “So I am sure the Bar Association will take a position on it, but I think that the Chief Justice has now fully appreciated, I mean he always did appreciate the impact of not delivering the judgments, but he has fully appreciated the extreme seriousness of it. So from now on we hope that he would do more to ensure that that type of backlog does not build up anymore, and he has every confidence of that going forward.”
“…Come next year he will have to find the time in addition to the duties that he has on a day-to-day basis. He just has to find the time to produce them, and it’s not that he doesn’t want to produce them. He wants to produce them, so let’s see what happens in the New Year,” Peyrefitte remarked.
The Amandala newspaper reported that Justice Benjamin, came under the scrutiny of the Belize Bar Association in September, when the Bar passed a resolution calling on him to deliver delayed judgments for the 32 cases that he has heard but on which he had not yet issued a ruling. The Bar had threatened to move for his removal from office for misconduct.
Reports here that Justice Benjamin would be proposed as Chancellor has sparked an outpouring of calls for Chancellor (acting) Cummings-Edwards to be confirmed in that position and for Justice George to be confirmed as Chief Justice.