The Bar Association of Belize has clarified that the so-called “Vellos case” is different from the current petition for a referendum on the legalization of marijuana.
The Bar Association (“the Bar), in a 17-page document, underscored that the “petition initiated by the Churches is distinctively different” from the Claim No. 305 of 2008 (which has been dubbed “the Vellos case,” given that the lead claimant was Mr. Alberto Vellos.
Earlier this week Minister of Education Hon. Francis Fonseca cited the case when speaking to the media on the ongoing petition led by the National Evangelical Association of Belize (NEAB). The Bar’s publication, for its part, does not make any specific reference to the minister’s comments but they explained the salient differences.
They explained that in regards to that particular case the claimants had sought to trigger a section in the Referendum Act that “expressly” required the GOB to hold a referendum where changes to fundamental rights under the Belize Constitution (section 2) were being pursued. According to the Association, at that time the referendum was a legal requirement. However, that section of the Referendum Act has since been repealed and no longer exists.
In NEAB's case, the Association argued that for one the churches are seeking a referendum on an ordinary piece of legislation using a distinct provision that allows a referendum provided that the required number of votes (10% of the voting population) is obtained. For context, this same law that NEAB is now abiding under which stipulated the 10% threshold to trigger a referendum on a topic of national importance was passed into law by the then Barrow Administration when they had removed the section where it had legally mandated the government to hold a referendum in the event any changes to Part 2 of the constitution were to be made.
The Association—while, again, not naming any minister—also struck down claims that various officials, including the Minister of New Growth Industries Hon. Kareem Musa, the Honorable Fonseca, and even Prime Minister John Briceño have promulgated. One such claim is that the churches were late in requesting a referendum on the topic since it has already passed its three readings in Parliament and that they had ample time to do so before the bill had been approved.
“The Referendum Act does not prescribe a time frame for the initiation of a referendum petition so that while the churches have delayed in the initiation of a petition for a referendum, they are free to do so,” the Bar wrote.
Additionally, the Association confirmed as per the Referendum Act, once a petition bearing at least 10% of signatures from the voting population is presented to the Governor-General, “she must” then present that petition to the Chief Elections Officer (CEO), whose job is to verify the signatures and certify that the threshold has officially been met.
According to the Association, that “must” not take more than two months to complete. Once that is completed the CEO is then entitled to issue a certificate to the GG indicating whether or not the petition meets the 10% threshold. Upon receiving that certificate the GG “must” then issue a writ of a referendum within 30 days, starting when the referendum is to be held.
“The Executive is, therefore, legally bound to proceed to referendum once the requirements are met,” stated the Bar Association.
But while the Government is legally mandated to hold a referendum, which is to be paid by funds extracted from the National Assembly, the Association stressed that the GOB is not “legally required” to abide by the results of the referendum, since it is just a tool to advise the government but cannot legally bind them to it.
The Bar Association noted, “The courts have found that the sanction, if any, for a Government who fails to abide by the results of a referendum is a political one,” or as former Prime Minister Dean Barrow termed it, “political suicide.”
But whether the Briceño Administration is ready to risk living with the consequences of their action at the next general elections, the Association said that they can still try to get the Governor General's approval to make the Cannabis and Industrial Hemp Control and Licensing Bill 2022 into law, even if a majority votes against it at the referendum.