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Senate passes three new bills

Photo: April 19, 2023, Sitting of the Senate

Two pieces of legislation to create a new Legal Aid Scheme were rubber-stamped by the Senate, and the controversial Non-Profit Organization Bill was passed with amendments.

by Marco Lopez

BELMOPAN. Wed. Apr. 19, 2023

Senators returned to the upper house of Parliament yesterday for a special sitting, during which three new pieces of legislation were signed into law. One of these, the Senior Court Amendment Bill, removes provisions related to the assignment of attorneys by the courts to pro-bono cases. This was read in concert with the Legal Aid Bill, the legislation which sets in place a framework for an independent Legal Aid Commission to oversee the creation of the new legal aid scheme countrywide. Along with these, the Non-Profit Organization Amendment Bill – which was the subject of most of the day’s debate – was also passed in the Senate, with amendments.

At the last sitting of the Senate, the second reading of the Senior Courts and Legal Aid Bill was deferred to allow for both pieces of legislation to be read together. The laws are aimed at formally setting up a legal aid scheme in Belize, to replace the informal and unlegislated legal aid structures which have been used in the country for years.

The Legal Aid Clinic was first opened in 2002 to provide representation to citizens of limited financial means who would otherwise have to go unrepresented in court. Senator for Government Business, Eamon Courtenay commented that these changes are long overdue, in reference to the removal of the power of the court to assign attorneys to legal aid cases.

Courtenay said that, in a committee session, they put forward an amendment to section 6 of the bill, to remove ministerial discretionary powers from over the commission, which is empowered to administer a comprehensive legal aid scheme that focuses on providing the neediest citizens with legal aid when necessary. The amendment states that the commission is now subject to “the control and position of no person or authority.”

The director and staff of the legal aid scheme are to be appointed by the commission, and attorneys have the opportunity to place their names voluntarily on the list of available attorneys to hear legal aid cases. Senator Michael Peyrefitte agrees with the concept of the bill and lamented the practice of attorneys turning down cases assigned to them by the court by citing lack of experience in criminal matters – leaving those cases to be assigned to practicing criminal law lawyers.  

The purpose of the law is to remedy that issue, and also widen the scope of representation available to the public. As mentioned, traditionally a judge would use a court-assigned attorney for accused persons who not have the means to pay for legal representation in indictable matters, primarily murder. With this limited scope of legal aid representation available, acute access-to-justice shortfalls have been recorded in Belize’s legal system by various international bodies. This new law will allow representation for matters including any capital offense, indictable offenses, rape, marital rape, and any indictable matter at the discretion of the judge. For all indictable matters involving minors, a legal representative will be provided under this scheme. On the civil side, areas of family law, civil matters involving minors, writs of habeas corpus, estate matters, and matters related to land have also been added to those cases for which legal aid coverage is to be provided.

Senator Elena Smith, in her remarks during the Senate session, pointed out that, while a reporting mechanism is in place to require the new Legal Aid Commission to provide reports, no penalty has been designated for instances in which no such report is provided.

In response, Senator Eamon Courtenay explained, “Senator Elena Smith is reminding me of her question about the reporting, which is traditional for all of these statutory bodies. Madam President, I share her concern, (but) I would be reluctant for us to amend the bill for us to provide for some sanction for a director or a commission that does not report. If we do that, we have to do that for all the statutory bodies across the country, and I think we should only do that after some serious and mature consideration.”

The Senior Court Amendment Bill was read a third time and passed without amendment, while the Legal Aid Bill was passed with amendments.  

Extradition Bill deferred 

The second reading of the Extradition Amendment Bill was deferred to a subsequent sitting of the Senate. This bill is one on the list of legislations that needed to be amended within the short term to satisfy the recommendations of the Caribbean Financial Action Task Force (FATA). Under the Mutual Evaluation Process, a review of Belize’s technical compliance and effectiveness will be conducted by the FATA later this year, and there are significant implications if the country fails the assessment, as was the case for the country in 2013. It could mean impacts on corresponding banking relationships that will trickle down as economic hardship for the individual Belizean.

Senator Chris Coye asserted that the Non-Profit Organization (Amendment) Bill, which puts in place regulations for non-profit groups, purportedly to protect those organizations from terrorist financing abuse, is also being enacted to satisfy a recommendation of the Finance Action Task Force. This is with respect to the law combating terrorist financing. Coye stated that the government has about a month to pass all of the necessary legislation to ensure compliance with the FATA’s recommendation.  

NPO Bill passed with amendments 

The NPO bill has not been without criticism from those organizations, and following the amendment, the Bar Association issued a public opinion questioning the practical need for the amendment. They shared that the power which will be vested in the NPO Registrar is already vested in the Financial Intelligence Unit under the Money Laundering and Terrorism Prevention Act. Like the many NPO organizations which have already decried this bill, the Bar concluded that the legislation will create even more bureaucracy for NPOs to contend with.    Coye noted that there had been consultation with the social partners’ advisory committee and this resulted in a number of amendments to the NPO draft bill.

The Senator for the Churches, Senator Alvin Benguche, referred to the bill as a “creator forging to the church.” He remarked that while they are prepared to support what is presented in the bill, it needs to go further.

“We were given the assurance, as a church body, that the undertaking will be there to be able to form some other legislations concerning the church and I want to say that publicly. I say that publicly because I have also been given permission, Madam President, by the union to remind the government that they have given undertakings in the past, and there are still some of those undertakings to be realized,” Senator Benguche said.

He said that as far as the church is concerned, they want to join the government in ensuring that they are compliant, but expressed some lingering reservations about the approach towards the church.

“When we look at a bill of this nature we have to ask ourselves, how does the church fit into a bill of this nature, where now we are asked to be listed under NPOs, and that which will bring us under certain restriction,” Benguche said.

Newly sworn-in NGO senator, Dr. Elma Kay, said at the onset that the way that the bill was initially handled cannot set precedent for bills when citing the importance of consultation and public participation in the NGO sector. She said that a lack of monitoring and enforcement from the regulators is the primary reason for the issues, and pointed out that the FATA generally ranks NPOs as low risk.

“The trust is, that many within our (NGO) sector are in support of protecting Belize from those who would try to abuse our system … many of us have already committed to very strict regulations and personal liabilities under existing laws. So, let the record reflect clearly that the work of NGOs and NPOs has been invaluable to Belize’s sustainable development, and that our response to the new legislation is to make the new law as strong and as fair as it needs to (be to) safeguard those invaluable contributions. And if it is that the false premise that somehow the sector has been the one to land Belize in hot water, then Madam President, we will be the first to call for an inquiry into this matter,” Senator Kay mentioned.

This law was read a third time and passed with amendments.