Amendment to Legal aid services bill laid out in the Senate

Amendment to Legal aid services bill laid out in the Senate

The Government of Belize is fine tuning the legislation that provides legal aid services to Belizeans who are faced with legal battles but are unable to pay for the services of a lawyer.  Currently, there is a Legal Aid office in Belize, but the human resources are severely limited and the functionality of the office is lacking.  The amendments to this legislation were laid out during today’s Senate sitting.  We start our coverage on this topic with the explanation for the Senator for Government Business, Eamon Courtenay.

Eamon Courtenay, Senator, Government Business: “Essentially what it seeks to do is to empower the commission to administer a comprehensive legal aid scheme for those who require legal services but are unable to afford it. A full regime is set out as to how the legal aid will be financed and how certificates may be applied for by persons who want legal aid and how they are to be granted. It is very comprehensive and it is much of an improvement on what we have at the current time. This is an improvement on the current situation. There is no legal framework that exists for legal aid in Belize other than the power of the court to make an assignment for a criminal matter. Now there are a number of competing things which Senator Peyrefitte alluded to. The first thing is we have to bear in mind that this is a country of laws. You cannot regardless of your profession I cannot send somebody who wants some planning work done and say go to Madam President I know she’s a planner and she will do it for free. I can’t send somebody and say go to a doctor and tell the doctor to provide an operation for you and he or she will do it for free period now can I say I want to build my house and go to a politician and say do you know any contractors tell them to build my house for free in similar vein you cannot send somebody to an attorney’s office and say you go and do this case in court and do it for free. That having been said all senators who spoke and I believe all Belizeans would appreciate that we understand in a society that is ruled by law the judicial system can only work if most litigants have access to affordable legal aid, affordable legal services. So the first principle is if you can pay for it you pay for it. The legal aid scheme, the legal aid services does not exist to allow persons who have the ability to hire Senator Peyreffite to come and say I want legal eat and the state must pay for me. So Senator Peyreffite made the point and I agree with him and I think there is provision in the bill that seeks to ensure that the legal aid scheme that is being developed does not prejudice private practitioners.” 

Lead Opposition Senator, Michael Peyrefitte, rose to speak on the Legal Aid matter, saying, that he would like to see the proper determination of who can and cannot afford an attorney.  He also spoke on his concerns over the cooperation of attorney when cases are forwarded to them.

Michael Peyrefitte, Senator: “One of the major problems we have with legal aid is this and it causes a lot of backlog for those people who genuinely need legal aid in the criminal law aspect of the practice you would have certain people who would purposely not seek to hire an attorney because they know one for sure will be assigned to them so they just wait and they figure their case will take about five years to begin anyway. I think the appointment of a commission kind of gives some teeth to the whole concept of listen we are going to do it in an organized way to determine who really can’t afford an attorney. What I hope to see accomplished Madam President is when attorneys are assigned matters and I can personally say I used to bear the brunt of this because I started off doing criminal defense, attorneys will be assigned a matter by the Chief Justice as the law was back then and then an attorney would say “Well I don’t do criminal law so I have to be excused from that case. I have never done a murder case before.” and so they would take all these free cases practically and put it on attorneys who only practice criminal law. Well I used to say well before I did my first murder case I didn’t do a murder case either I mean you have to take responsibility. I would hope that it will be very difficult once the Commission assigns you to do a particular case that you can’t just say I don’t do that type of law, you can’t just request your name to be removed it has to be that if you are assigned a case and you don’t want to do that case then it is up to you to pay another attorney a fee for that other attorney to take it up on your behalf and that way you would have done your duty in terms of saying look I don’t do that case but I have some other lawyer who will take my place. I think it has to be and as they develop rules and regulations I hope that they take the opportunity to make it next to impossible for an attorney to just pass up that responsibility but other than that Madam President I think the whole concept of doing something like this is a good concept and we’ll see how it plays out. “

Making her debut presentation in the Senate today was Dr Elma Kay who now replaces former Senator Osmany Salas.  Senator Kay spoke on the urgent need for Belizeans to not only have access to attorneys, but to have quality defence.  The senator cited several statistics and reports on the current legal aid situation in the country.

Dr. Elma Kay, NGO Senator: “In a developing country such as Belize access to services is a constant challenge for people with limited financial resources. For many families paying for competent and qualified legal assistance regardless of circumstances is simply not an affordable option. Established in 2002 the Legal Advice and Services Center exists to provide legal aid to those who do not have the means to hire a private attorney. With only four full time lawyers and three support staff the agency headquartered in Belize City struggles to meet demand however the current roster of attorneys represents a fourfold increase in human resources. For the first seven years of operations the center had only one lawyer to serve the entire country. The Human Rights Commission of Belize continue to raise concerns that several immigration offenders remain imprisoned despite paying the necessary fines and completing their prison sentences. Madam President I cite these existing reports because we do not think it can be overstated how critically important the work of legal aid services are to this country. Our citizens, no matter their economic circumstances, have the right to justice. Based on just these two reports it is imperative that we set out to create an environment conducive to encouraging those who require legal aid to seek it out. We do have some concerns that some aspects of this bill would discourage rather than encourage access to legal aid because of the overall wording. Clients will still need to be vetted and based on financial assessment will be put on a payment plan. Is it that the practice has been that legal aid has been manipulated by those who can afford legal services? We also note that this bill proposes to set up an autonomous corporate body the Legal Aid Commission but we signal from now that if the commission is not allocated the appropriate financial or expert resources or if the resources are somehow to come from those that desperately need the legal aid then the exercise is futile because it will not actually ensure that those who require justice have access to justice. So we confess that we are grappling with the fundamental differences set out in this bill that will enhance and increase  the current services for legal aid.”

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