PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, Feb 15, CMC – The Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) Wednesday dismissed an appeal brought by the Belize Bar Association concerning a perceived threat to that country’s Court of Appeal’s judicial independence.
The CCJ, Belize’s highest court in dismissing the claim, also made strong recommendations for changes to the appointment and tenure of Justices of Appeal that would provide them with security of tenure and a selection process that was independent of the government.
The Court recommended immediate adoption of those recommendations.
The Belize Bar Association had filed a Constitutional motion challenging the Belize Constitution (Sixth Amendment) Act which states that when an existing or future appointment of a Justice of Appeal did not specify a period of appointment, the judge’s term of office would last one year from the date of commencement of the amendment, or one year from the date of appointment.
The amendment also stated that at the end of the period the office would become vacant. At the time, the changes applied to two sitting judges.
The Bar Association argued that the Sixth Amendment was unconstitutional and violated the rule of law, the separation of powers principle and the basic structure of the Constitution of Belize.
The Association expressed concern that one-year appointments to the Court of Appeal undermined the security of tenure of such judges, politicized appointments and re-appointments, and eroded public confidence in the Court of Appeal as an “independent and impartial” court
But the Belize government argued that the move was intended to correct the alleged invalidity of the appointments of two sitting judges and to prevent the future appointment of judges with no specified period of tenure.
The Attorney-General submitted that the constitutional procedure for amending the Constitution was fully complied with, and there was no alteration to the structure of the Constitution.
In its judgment, the CCJ acknowledged that while the re-appointment of judges by the Government ‘lends fragility to judicial independence’, the amendment could not be deemed as unconstitutional as the power to reappoint judges did not derive from the amendment.
It agreed with the Belizean Court of Appeal’s findings and ruled also that the Sixth Amendment was not a removal provision. The Court noted that neither of the two judges, who would have been affected, had been removed from their posts.
“Although we have come to the conclusion that the impugned (Sixth Amendment) legislation as such is not unconstitutional, it is clear that one-year appointments under the Constitution, thus amended, could be in breach of the Constitution, in particular section 6(7).
“We recommend a further evolution of the concept of judicial independence so that Justices of Appeal have the same security of tenure as Supreme Court judges. This Court notes that Belize is moving towards a Court of Appeal Bench with non-resident fixed term judges serving alongside permanent Belizean appointees,” the five-member CCJ panel of judges ruled.
The CCJ said further that “it is desirable that the executive system of judicial appointments in respect of resident and non-resident judges be replaced by an independent appointing body such as the Belize Judicial and Legal Services Commission that deals with appointments to the Supreme Court Bench.
“This independent Commission should appoint non-resident persons to the Court of Appeal until the normal retirement date or the extended retirement date of Supreme Court judges but would require non-resident judges to sit only as and when invited to sit by the President of the Court of Appeal.”
The Court also recommended that shorter periods of tenure could be offered to appointees over the age of 75.
It said that each party will bear its own cost of the appeal.