Supreme Court building falling apart!

The content originally appeared on: Amandala Newspaper

Photo: The ceiling over the staircase collapsed

With water damage, the continued growth of mold, and collapsing ceilings, the Supreme Court building is in a state of disrepair that was worsened by the recent passing of Hurricane Lisa.

by Khaila Gentle

BELIZE CITY, Wed. Nov. 23, 2022

Recent ceiling collapses, combined with extensive water damage sustained during Hurricane Lisa and the unbearable stench of mold in several courthouses, have rendered Belize’s Supreme Court building practically uninhabitable. On Sunday night, a portion of the ceiling of the Magistrate’s Court, which is housed in the historic building, came tumbling down. On Tuesday, the same occurred to a section above the court building’s stairs. And while no employees were injured during either occurrence, the collapsed ceilings forced most court proceedings to come to a temporary emergency halt.

According to Chief Magistrate Sharon Fraser, the current state of the court building is nothing less than frustrating. The collapse of the roof and the subsequent pausing of court services, however, was something she had expected.

“This is an emergency. I mean, we can’t help it. I know I looked at the dome yesterday and I said to them, ‘you know what, this is going to fall’, and lo and behold. Like I said, I’m only grateful it happened during the night when nobody was really around so that we didn’t have to worry about anybody getting hurt,” she said.

Most affected by the damages is the carrying out of trials, since the portion of the court that had to be closed houses four courtrooms as well as the holding cells. For the time being, virtual hearings are being conducted for some prisoners, while other matters, such as arraignments, will be done using a hybrid virtual-physical process.

Three weeks ago, on November 2, during the passage of Hurricane Lisa, a portion of the iconic building’s roof was ripped off. As a result, a number of the Supreme Court chambers were relocated to the National Bank of Belize building. As for the Magistrate’s Court, Chief Magistrate Fraser says that a walkthrough of the building the day after the storm had passed revealed that the damage was extensive. At the very least, three courtrooms, especially courtroom #4, had suffered water damage after heavy rains poured through the missing portion of the roof and then came downstairs. Then, this past weekend, an additional onslaught of heavy rains compounded that damage.

“It then meant when we came here Monday, I met a courtroom where the entire ceiling, all the light fixtures, electrical stuff, everything was down. The place was full of water and the mold—the smell of the mold was just unbearable. So, a decision was taken that I would close down that side of the building, which is the left side of this building,” said Frazer.

The court building’s state of disrepair, however, is not a new matter. For quite some time now, those working in the building have had to contend with water retention and the unpleasant smell of mold, made even worse after Hurricane Lisa, since the loss of the building’s roof meant that even the smallest amount of rain led to water leaking in. And even without the rain, water remains trapped within the court’s ceilings.

Just recently, Chief Magistrate Fraser instructed magistrates to avoid using the rooms where there was extensive water damage and mold growth.

“We were rotating the courts so they would go in, do their matters, and we take turns to use the two courts that are in the front, with a hope that once it is they had put a tarp over the roof, we maybe would have been able to continue operations and serving the public as best as we can,” she said.

“All of this is really unfortunate for me, because we just invested money in demolding that side of the building. I mean, for a department where we’re strapped for funds, you know, we found the money to ensure that at least it was safe and sanitary for persons to operate there. We know how deadly mold is. And quickly, before you know it, you could actually smell it. You walked in there, you smelled it. Now it’s worse,” she added.

The Chief Justice and the Attorney General’s office as well as the Ministry of Infrastructure Development and Housing have all been made aware of the current status of the Magistrate’s Court, and since Tuesday, the Ministry has conducted an initial assessment of the building.

“They know the urgency of addressing the issue facing us at this time, so I don’t feel at any point that we’re being ignored, that we’re not being looked at and nobody is not understanding the seriousness of this matter,” said Chief Magistrate Fraser.

And while Hurricane Lisa exacerbated the ongoing collapse of the Supreme Court building, Chief Magistrate Sharon Fraser says that the storm might just have been a blessing in disguise, since now it may speed up the process of permanently relocating the court to a new location on Chetumal Street. But until that process begins, the Magistrate’s Court, especially the four courtrooms that are currently most affected, will need to be housed elsewhere, and that may prove to be a challenge.

The major issue when it comes to finding a temporary location for the Magistrate’s Court, Fraser says, will involve financing—specifically rent, since the government will have to find the funds to pay rent for a department for which a budget allocation for rent expenditure had not been required before.

On Wednesday, Minister of Infrastructure Development & Housing, Hon. Julius Espat, told the press that, over the years, the historic Supreme Court Building, which is over a century old, has certainly not been maintained. He said that, currently, his ministry is doing all that it can to see to the matter and that, despite the damages, assessments have not deemed the building completely structurally unsafe for future use. Starting this week, however, the building will be decommissioned temporarily so that no one utilizes it while it is repaired.

“We are working, based on our capacity, but everything will be dealt with adequately. This building is a special one, though. The compound is a special one—you’re talking the court house, the Treasury building and the Court of Appeal. I think it deserves special attention. And that is what we will be doing,” Minister Espat said.

The Infrastructure Minister also addressed the fact that the government has inherited many government buildings that have not been maintained for more than fifteen years.

“That is a cultural problem that we have in government. We tend to like the idea of building new buildings and cutting the ribbons, and we don’t have any budget in place to maintain. That is also another proposal that this ministry will be providing to Cabinet to see if a budget can be allocated to continuous maintenance of public buildings,” he stated.

When it comes to the Supreme Court building, Minister Espat said engineers found that there were several sections of the building’s roof that are rotted and will need to be replaced. He added that the ministry will also be ensuring that repairs are done to meet a standard that will allow the building to better resist damage from hurricanes, Category 1 or otherwise.

“The building is salvageable, though it will take resources to bring it back to where we believe it should be. And that’s why I am insisting it’s a historical building—we can’t just put anything there. It’s the last of our historic buildings in Belize, and we have to do it right,” he said.