One of the more common questions we get from individuals wishing to move to Belize, and this includes retirees, is whether or not U.S. or other nationality attorneys can practice in Belize and the answer is yes – in principle.
Belize’s justice system is broadly based on English Common Law, with the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal and magistrates’ courts. The Supreme Court hears serious civil and criminal cases before judges and jury. The Court of Appeal generally sits four times a year. The legal system of Belize is based on the common law of England and is adversarial in nature. The law is further reflects precedent law of England and the British Commonwealth, and rulings frequently cite Supreme Court rulings in those jurisdictions. Legislation or Acts or statute law is considered a primary source of reference. Parliament is responsible for the law making process.
Section 94 (Chapter 7) of the Constitution of Belize establishes Belize’s Supreme Court of Judicature and Court of Appeal. The judiciary, which is one of the three separate arms of the State, is headed by the Chief Justice, who has overall responsibility for the administration of justice in Belize.
Preliminary hearings of less serious civil cases are in the district courts and those of criminal cases are in summary jurisdiction courts. Both district and summary jurisdiction courts are magistrates’ courts.
In June 2010 the Caribbean Court of Justice in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, became the final court of appeal, replacing the Privy Council in the UK.
Both U.S. and Belizean law systems are based on English Common Law as both countries are former colonies of Great Britain. But U.S. jurisprudence has deviated so far from English Law, that they two are now totally separate species of animals to paraphrase a U.S. trained attorney who practices law in Belize – after going back to law school in the British Caribbean.
The bottom line is that U.S. educated attorneys must complete a one-year post J.D. program, a Certificate of Legal Education (CLE), at the Norman Manley School of Law in Jamaica or the Hugh Wooding Law School in Trinidad and Tobago or elsewhere as a first step before they can be admitted to the Belize Bar and practice in the country. Related, see here a list of Belize Lawyers.
The fact that most any U.S. trained attorney would not be too keen to go back to school in the Caribbean or England or other British Commonwealth countries, points to there being no more than a handful of U.S. attorneys practicing law in Belize.
Here is the specific provision from the Legal Profession Act, Chapter 320:
“6.-(1) A person who after the commencement of this Act applies to the Supreme Court to be admitted to practise law, and who satisfies the Supreme Court that he –
( a ) is a Belizean citizen and holds a Legal Education Certificate; or
( b ) has obtained adequate training in the law and is suitably qualified and competent to practise law in Belize; or
( c ) possesses suitable practical experience and competence and is qualified to practise law in any country which the Chief Justice, after consultation with the Council, designates by Order published in the Gazette as having a sufficiently analogous system of laws, and is of good character, shall upon compliance with the requirements of this Act, and unless that person is exempt therefrom, on payment to the Registrar of the appropriate fee for registration and upon payment to the Bar Association of the annual subscription in respect of membership of that Association, be admitted to practise law and be entered on the Roll by order of the court.”
There is a case in which a Belizean citizen was found to be competent to practise in Belize although she did not obtain a Legal Education Certificate (In the matter of the admission of Tanya Longsworth, Supreme Court of Belize, 2001 Action no. 453) and another matter in which a U.K. citizen was admitted without a Legal Education Certificate (In the matter of the admission of Vincent Nelson, Supreme Court of Belize, 2007 Action no. 248). These cases are probably exceptions to the rule, however.
Lawyers who are admitted to the bar in British Commonwealth countries have a much better chance of being admitted to the bar in Belize. The legal systems in most of the former British Colonies are very closely aligned to that of Belize. Most of the government-salaried lawyers who work in Belize as magistrates, judges and prosecutors, come from countries such as Guyana, India, Trinidad and from Britain’s former African colonies.
Being a Queen’s Council in the U.K. is now an accepted legal qualification to litigate before the Belize Supreme Court, The Belize Court of Appeals, and the Caribbean Court Of Justice (CCJ) – Belize’s final court of appeal that replaced the Privy Council on 1 June 2010. But an individual who is a Q.C. is already a very highly paid professional in Britain and would come to Belize only on an even higher paying engagement on high profile cases for clients with very deep pockets.