Belize, previously known as British Honduras, is a former British colony. Its legal system is based on English common law. Belize has a written Constitution adopted on 21 September 1981, its date of independence from Great Britain. Its Constitution includes an extensive bill of rights. It also establishes Belize’s judicial arm of government and the Belize Supreme Court.
Belize’s court system follows an adversarial model. Delivery of arguments in court is conducted both orally and in writing. The system is mainly comprised of four levels. From the top down, these are:
With the exception of certain matters which are considered particularly sensitive, court proceedings are generally open to the public. The trial of sexual offences, matters concerning the welfare of families and those involving minors are generally kept private and tried in camera.
There is also a practice by which the Supreme Court may order that the filings, record of proceedings and evidence in certain matters be sealed and kept private upon the application of a party to such actions.
Rights of audience are enjoyed by attorneys-at-law admitted to practice law in Belize and those appearing as agents of the Belize government, still referred to as the Crown.
Belize’s Supreme Court system provides for court-annexed mediation. Lay parties are free to represent themselves in these proceedings. The parties to such mediation are under an obligation to keep information disclosed during those sessions confidential.
Belize has not adopted legislation permitting litigation to be funded by third parties. Furthermore, the common law doctrine of champerty makes it unlawful for a third party, with no previous interest in a suit, to interfere in the disputes of others by funding it with a view to profiting from its proceeds. Similarly, the common law doctrine of maintenance prohibits a disinterested third party from meddling in the litigation of others’ disputes by supporting or encouraging it.
Attorneys are generally prohibited from entering into partnerships or fee sharing arrangements concerning the practice of law with non-qualified bodies or persons. Attorneys are also prohibited from accepting any fee or reward for merely introducing a client or referring a case or client to another attorney.
Given the above restrictions, this issue does not arise in this jurisdiction.
This issue does not arise in this jurisdiction.
This issue does not arise in this jurisdiction.
This issue does not arise in this jurisdiction.
Attorneys’ contingency fee agreements are expressly permitted by Section 33 of Belize’s Legal Profession Act. These agreements may be made to wholly or partly cover an attorney’s remuneration for legal business done on a client’s behalf, they must be in writing and signed by the client or their agent. These agreements may be sued on and recovered on or set aside.
However, if in any suit for the recovery of such fees the agreement appears to the court to be unfair and unconscionable, the court may order that the agreement be cancelled or that the amount payable under it be reduced. In that sense, the fairness or otherwise of these agreements is subject to review by Belize’s courts.
This issue does not arise in this jurisdiction.
Though not mandatory, it is accepted common practice that putative claimants will make written demand on intended defendants before commencing suit. These demands will generally specify what is being demanded and a reasonable period for compliance, failing which suit will be commenced.
These steps are usually taken as a matter of courtesy. However, the coming into force of court-connected mediation rules, mentioned in 1.4 Legal Representation in Court, has also proven such pre-action steps to be of further use. This is because once a suit is commenced, the court will very often require the parties to attempt out-of-court negotiation by referring the case to mediation. These pre-action steps may therefore save parties the cost and effort of commencing a suit by serving as a means to engage the other side before commencing suit.
A potential defendant may reply to such letters if he or she so chooses.
The usual limitation periods for actions founded in tort or contract is six years. Those six years begin from the date when the cause of action arises. There is also a 12-year limitation period which applies with respect to matters founded on trust principles, those concerning claims made on the estates of deceased persons and some claims based on adverse possession of real property.
The jurisdiction of the Belize Supreme Court is based upon a person’s physical presence within the jurisdiction of Belize. In contractual claims, a Belize court will generally recognise and honour the jurisdiction clause in the contract, including the parties’ choice of law and choice of dispute resolution mechanism and forum.
A person may be lawfully served with a court process emanating from the Belize Supreme Court where that person is served at a place within the jurisdiction. Alternatively, a person may be lawfully served with Belize court process outside of the jurisdiction with the permission of the Belize Supreme Court. A defendant located outside of the jurisdiction may also choose to voluntarily accept service through an agent within the jurisdiction appointed for that purpose.
A defendant served outside of the jurisdiction runs the risk of being deemed as having voluntarily submitted to the Belize court’s jurisdiction, or having waived his or her right to challenge the court’s jurisdiction, if they actively takes steps in the Belize proceedings without promptly indicating that he or she does not accept the court’s jurisdiction and intends to challenge it. This includes, for instance, where a defendant commences a counterclaim and takes steps to prosecute it in the Belize court. Although a Belize court may legally have jurisdiction over a foreign resident under certain conditions, the court may still nonetheless decline to exercise that jurisdiction. This applies, for instance, where a defendant validly raises a plea of forum non conveniens.
Supreme Court claims are commenced by filing and serving a claim form. That claim form sets out the particulars of the parties to the claim, the brief nature of the claim, and the relief sought. It is generally accompanied by a statement of claim. A statement of claim supports the claim form by stating the claim in greater detail, including all information technically required by law.
In certain cases, a supporting affidavit may accompany the claim form. Supporting affidavits would generally serve the same purpose as a statement of claim, except that they constitute sworn evidence supporting the claim upon its commencement and within the stage of pleadings. Though it includes a statement of truth by which a litigant certifies the truth of its contents, a statement of claim is a form of pleading, not sworn evidence.
Where a claimant uses a supporting affidavit, a defendant may likewise initially respond to the claim with his or her own evidence in the form of an affidavit in response. This procedure of using affidavits at the stage of commencing a claim is useful, and most common in, for example, administrative law and judicial review claims.
Belize’s Supreme Court Civil Procedure Rules permit parties to amend their pleadings without the court’s permission at any time before the first case management conference. A party wishing to amend after that point can only do so with the court’s permission. Generally, the party must promptly apply to court demonstrating that there has been a sufficient change of circumstances since the first case management conference to justify the court’s granting of its permission.
The general method of serving an opposing party with court process is personal service. In the Supreme Court, service of court process is the responsibility of a litigant, not the court. Service may also be effected by substituted methods where the court gives permission to do so, for example, by publication in a newspaper of sufficiently wide circulation. The court will normally give such permission where a litigant proves that it is impracticable to accomplish personal service.
A claimant may obtain a judgment in default against a defendant who fails to either acknowledge service of a claim in a timely manner or file and serve a defence.
Belize law permits representative actions. The court may appoint one or more persons or a body to represent five or more persons having the same or a similar interest in the proceedings. A representative may be appointed to act on behalf of either claimants or defendants. Where the court appoints a representative, an order of the court binds everyone whom that party represents.
It may not, however, be enforced against a person who is not a party to the proceedings unless the person wishing to enforce it obtains permission from the court. This facility for representation of others in proceedings extends to the representation of persons who cannot be ascertained, including those yet unborn. These possibilities arise especially in proceedings concerning the estates of deceased persons, trust property, or the construction of written instruments.
There is no requirement for a cost estimate in these actions.
In appropriate circumstances, Belize’s civil procedure rules allow parties to seek "interim" remedies which include remedies that could be obtained before a claim was commenced. Interim orders include:
The rules mentioned in 4.1 Interim Applications/Motions above also provide for the summary disposal of proceedings, in whole or in part, by various means. These include the powers of the court to grant summary judgment on any issue or issues or to strike-out the whole or any part of a case.
Summary judgment and applications to strike out the whole or any part of another’s case are the primary dispositive motions used in the Belize Supreme Court.
Previously, it was not unusual for interested parties not named as a claimant or defendant to join a lawsuit as an "interested party". However, this practice is coming under increasing scrutiny. The primary reason for this increasing scrutiny is the management of additional costs considerations arising from the involvement of an additional party which might have no true lis in the proceedings. In those instances where the participation of an interested party is permitted, provision should be made for a proper delineation of the scope of that party’s involvement and the costs implications of it.
A defendant may apply to court for an order that a claimant provides security for that defendant’s costs. These orders are perhaps most common where the claimant resides outside the jurisdiction, the claimant has no assets or means within the jurisdiction to which the defendant might look to satisfy a court order and the claimant’s case against the defendant is not particularly strong. The manner of posting security includes the claimant’s payment of a specified sum into court in order to abide by the terms of any costs order that the court might ultimately make in the defendant’s favour.
The costs of interim applications can be ordered to be paid relative to the date on which that application is disposed of or at a later date, including by factoring the liability for those costs into the final costs order made at the end of the substantive claim.
Applications for interim relief generally require that the respondents to such applications have at least seven clear days' notice of the hearing of that application. "Urgent" applications generally only require three clear days' notice if brought to the attention of any other party.
As a jurisdiction that has adopted English common law, Belize has a process of discovery which is referred to as disclosure. Litigation proceeding through its normal course in the Belize court is subject to the usual disclosure requirements.
The duty of disclosure is generally confined to the parties to the proceedings. Exceptionally, however, a court may order a third party to disclose information that is relevant to a claim involving parties other than that third party. These orders are of the Norwich Pharmacal/Bankers Trust type. In Belize, their primary use has been with respect to the unearthing of information in proceedings concerning international financial services. These orders are discretionary. To obtain them, one must generally satisfy the court that:
Bankers trust type orders specifically are used mainly in tracing actions where an applicant has been unlawfully deprived of its property or property to which it has a legal entitlement.
Generally, parties will be under a duty, confirmed by an order for standard disclosure in the case, to disclose all information and documents that are directly relevant to the claim. In simple terms, "directly relevant" means tending to either prove or disprove one’s case. This obligation to disclose all documents that are directly relevant is a continuing obligation on the parties. Otherwise, parties may be ordered to specifically disclose certain information by way of an order for "specific disclosure". Parties wishing to rely on a document must disclose that document in the proceedings within which that party intends to use them.
Part 28 of Belize’s Civil Procedure Rules (2005) contains detailed rules governing disclosure and inspection of documents.
Generally, the process of disclosure needs to be adhered to in order for documents to be relied on in a Supreme Court civil trial. A party will not be able to rely upon a document at trial if they have failed to disclose that document pursuant to the court’s order for disclosure. From this perspective, there is no substitute for the disclosure process and mechanisms.
A party may claim privilege in the disclosure process and withhold documents from disclosure or inspection on that basis. Legal professional privilege, covering certain correspondence between attorney and client, features prominently in this area. A party lawfully possessing that privilege may also waive that privilege of their own volition. Communications with in-house counsel qualify equally provided that the nature of such documents support the privilege being claimed.
A person may apply to the Supreme Court, without notice, for an order permitting that person not to disclose the existence of a document on the ground that disclosure of the existence of the document would damage the public interest.
Belize law provides for the granting of injunctive relief, these orders are discretionary. They include injunctions of various types among which are: prohibitory injunctions, mandatory injunctions, freezing orders and anti-suit injunctions.
As mentioned before, in 4.7 Application/Motion Timeframe, in the case of applications for interim relief generally, Belize’s procedural rules provide for the hearing of applications on an urgent basis, including on a without notice basis. In appropriate circumstances, the hearing of urgent applications brought without notice is constrained only by the availability of the Supreme Court. These applications have been known to be heard within as little as a day or two.
Injunctive relief can be obtained without notice to the respondent. It is for the applicant to assert and persuade the court that the case is an appropriate one for not giving the respondent notice of the application.
An applicant for injunctive relief is generally required to give an undertaking as to any damages that another party may suffer on account of any injunction obtained by them. That applicant should also demonstrate that they can make good on that undertaking if called upon to do so. An affected party may equally apply to court for an order that the applicant fortify such an undertaking, especially where sufficient evidence is produced to raise doubts about the applicant’s ability to satisfy that undertaking if called upon to do so.
Injunctive relief is often broadly worded. Freezing orders can be stated to apply to worldwide assets by the terms of such orders.
Injunctive relief orders are generally stated to apply not only to the respondent directly but also seek to enjoin the respondent from breaching the terms of the order by acting through third parties such as employees, successors, agents and/or assigns.
Injunctions will generally include a "penal notice". Such notices warn persons on whom that order is served that they may be liable to be committed to prison or to have their assets seized if they fail to comply with the terms of that order.
Trials are a combination of leading evidence and presenting arguments. Both evidence and arguments are presented in a mix of oral and written form. The evidence in interim applications is generally presented by affidavit. Expert evidence may be presented in the form of an expert’s report. An expert may also produce a witness statement in proceedings.
Cross-examination of witnesses is commonplace. In some matters, such as judicial review or on the hearing of many interim applications, cross-examination is less common.
Case management hearings are the primary mode through which the court actively manages its cases. These hearings are usually held before a Supreme Court judge. They are generally treated as hearings in chamber, except that the court does have the power to consider and dispose of fairly substantial matters at a case management hearing. Mainly, these hearings are used by the court to give its directions as to how a case is managed until it is determined.
Belize law recognises the notion of jury trials in very limited civil cases. In practice, however, this is seldom if ever used.
The best kind of evidence in most cases will be evidence that is based on the witness’s first-hand perception, involvement or experience. Hearsay evidence is inadmissible in both criminal and civil trials.
Expert evidence can only be used by parties with the court’s permission. Once called, an expert is obliged to acknowledge that their first duty is to the court, not to any particular party at whose behest they might be called, and to act accordingly.
As stated in 1 General, with the exception of certain matters which are considered particularly sensitive, court proceedings are generally considered open to the public. The trial of sexual offences, matters concerning the welfare of families and those involving minors are generally kept private and tried in camera.
A judge is permitted to intervene during a hearing or trial to the extent that he or she does not unfairly prejudice either side of the litigation by doing so. The judge is required to be an independent and fair arbiter on the trial of disputes. Judges should perform that function without "descending into the arena" of the litigation between the parties.
It is open to judges to reach their decisions at their first opportunity, including immediately upon the conclusion of a trial. A judge is also permitted to reserve their decision on a case for a reasonable time to allow for the necessary deliberation. It is fair to say that generally, the more complex a matter, the greater the chance of a judge reserving his or her decision to a later date.
A fair estimate of the time for disposal of an average claim from commencement through to trial in our Supreme Court would be between nine and 18 months.
The settlement of disputes is strongly encouraged by Belize’s court system. Our procedural rules incorporate the use of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms. There is a system of court-connected mediation legally in place inclusive of a roster of qualified mediators. It is not required that parties seek the court’s approval of the terms of a settlement except in rare cases, such as those involving a minor or an individual deemed legally not competent because of disability or diminished capacity.
Parties have the option of keeping the settlement of a lawsuit confidential. They may do so, among other ways, by using an appropriate form of Tomlin Order, the effect of which may be to expressly reserve the parties’ ability to apply to court to enforce the terms of their settlement while keeping the terms of settlement confidential until then, if the disclosure of those terms is indeed proved necessary.
A settlement agreement entered into on its own without being incorporated into an order of the court is generally enforced by suing upon that agreement for its specific performance and damages or both.
Settlement agreements may be challenged on normal contractual bases such as illegality.
Belize law recognises most, if not all, forms of relief known to English common law. These include:
Exemplary or aggravated damages are available in special cases, mostly in constitutional or public law claims. In contract, the award of damages where their amount is expressly specified in the contract is subject to the unenforceability of sums found to constitute a penalty.
Pre-judgment and post-judgment interest are available.
A domestic judgment is enforceable by applying to court for orders for its enforcement including writs of fieri facias and orders attaching a judgment to the debtor’s property or to any reachable stream of a debtor’s income.
A money judgment that is final and conclusive and made upon the merits of the case may be enforced in Belize by a process of registration under our Reciprocal Enforcement of Judgments Act if it so qualifies. The Act applies to qualifying judgments emanating from the courts of England and Wales and from those of certain Commonwealth countries. Outside the provisions of that legislation, certain money judgments of a similar nature may be enforced in Belize by commencing suit de novo upon the judgment as a bare contract debt.
Though more onerous than the simplified process of registration, such suits may also prove relatively simplified in appropriate cases. For instance, a claimant may proceed straight to obtaining summary judgment in such an action where the matter is undefended in the Belize court or where, doing their best, the defendant is only able to produce an weak defence.
Belize has a tiered hierarchical court system. Litigants may appeal the decisions of lower courts to the next highest court in the hierarchy. The highest and final appellate court in its system is the Caribbean Court of Justice. Interestingly, that court also serves the dual purpose of being the court of original jurisdiction for matters arising under the Treaty of Chaguaramas, the treaty constituting the Caribbean Community Regional Block (CARICOM), of which Belize is a member.
Litigants may appeal either as of right or with the court’s permission. For example, most "final" orders of the Supreme Court are appealable as of right. The appeal of some "interlocutory" Supreme Court orders requires the prior permission of the court. Where permission is required, the intended appellant applies first to the Supreme Court (being the trial court or court of first instance). If the Supreme Court refuses that application for permission, the intended appellant may then apply directly to the Court of Appeal for permission.
A party appeals a decision of the Supreme Court by filing and serving a Notice of Appeal. They must do so within 21 days of the date of perfection of the court order being appealed.
Appeals are mostly confined to considering matters of law. Appellate courts will generally defer to the decisions of lower courts on matters of fact and matters concerning the exercise of a discretionary power by a trial judge except where those decisions or orders are demonstrably "aberrant". Appeals under Belize’s appellate system would be most fairly classified as exercises of review, not re-hearing.
The court has the power to make various orders on granting an appeal.
These include powers to confirm, vary, amend or set aside the order or make any such order as the Supreme Court might have made, or to make any order which ought to have been made, and to make such further or other orders as the case may require. The court may make any order on such terms as the court thinks just to ensure the determination on the merits of the real question in controversy between the parties.
After hearing an appeal, the Court of Appeal may do any of several things. It may, for example, quash the decision of the lower court and either order a retrial of the matter or substitute its own finding for those of the lower court.
As between attorney and client, a client will be responsible to his or her attorney to pay that attorney’s charges for handling litigation on the client’s behalf. As between party and party, a court may make an order as to which party is to pay the costs of court proceedings. The general rule on costs is that costs follow the event, so an unsuccessful party will generally be ordered to pay the successful party’s costs.
A court may order that the amount of costs be based on the amount prescribed by Belize's procedural rules. Alternatively, a court may order that the costs of a claim be assessed by the court. Cost orders are also appealable.
Interest is usually payable at the rate of 6% on every judgment debt. A judgment debt includes that portion of the debt arising from the order for payment of costs in those proceedings.
As previously mentioned, in 1.4 Legal Representation in Court, 3.1 Rules on Pre-action Conduct and 8.1 Court Approval there is a growing culture of using alternative dispute resolution (ADR) mechanisms in Belize. Lower costs, simplified processes and quicker results are all factors motivating parties to approach ADR with increasing openness and acceptance.
A court may refer a claim to court-connected mediation even if parties do not consent. There is also a system of court-connected arbitration as well.
As mentioned briefly in 8.1 Court Approval, there is a Roster of Mediators which comprises trained mediators. They are primarily available for to serve as mediators in court-connected mediations.
There is also a Roster of Arbitrators which comprises trained arbitrators. They are primarily available to serve as arbitrators for the purposes of court-connected arbitrations.
Belize’s Arbitration Act, Chapter 125 of the Laws of Belize (revised edition 2011), generally governs the conduct of arbitration and the enforcement of arbitral awards in Belize. The Arbitration Act governs local awards under the Geneva Protocol (1923), foreign awards and the enforcement of awards pursuant to the New York Convention (on Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards 1973).
The arbitral procedure, including the composition of the arbitral tribunal, is generally governed by the will of the parties to the arbitration.
A considerable range of matters, especially commercial matters, are arbitrable in Belize. Non-arbitrable matters include those over which the Belize court enjoys exclusive jurisdiction. These include:
A particular subject matter may also be determined to be non-arbitrable if the rules chosen by the parties to govern the conduct of their arbitration do not provide for the arbitration of that particular subject matter.
In respect of local awards, the Arbitration Act provides that where arbitrators or umpires misconduct themselves, the court may remove them. Furthermore, where an arbitration or award has been improperly procured, the court may set the award aside.
A foreign award shall not be enforceable under the act if the court dealing with the case is satisfied that,
In addition, a court may refuse to enforce a foreign award if it considers that the award:
Generally, a "local" or domestic award may, by leave of the Supreme Court, be enforced in the same manner as a judgment or order to the same effect. A foreign award is enforceable in Belize either by action or in the same way as one would enforce a domestic award. Specifically, a foreign award may likewise be enforced, by leave of the court, in the same manner as a judgment or order to the same effect.
Enforcing Foreign Awards
In order that a foreign award may be enforceable under the act it must have:
The party seeking to enforce a foreign award must produce,
Convention awards may, by leave of the Supreme Court, be enforced in the same manner as a judgment or order to the same effect. Enforcement of a Convention award may be refused if the person against whom it is invoked proves,
Enforcement of a Convention award may also be refused if the award is in respect of a matter which is not capable of settlement by arbitration, or if it would be contrary to public policy to enforce the award.
There are current proposals for any future dispute resolution reform.
Belize’s judicial system has not been immune to the potentially disruptive effects of COVID-19. In response to the pandemic, the Supreme Court has put in place guidelines by way of a Practice Direction that seeks to enable the court’s business to be safely conducted according to prevailing health protocols. These measures mainly aim to limit person-to-person conduct. Electronic filings and the use of electronic media to conduct court hearings are now widely used as compared to before. Paperless communication is also now widely facilitated and encouraged.
The government has not passed legislation or issued orders suspending the operation of general limitation periods.