More Courtroom Bickering Over Land Rights

It was a landmark decision earlier this year when Chief Justice Dr. Abdulai Conteh ruled that the Barrow administration’s proposed Sixth Amendment to the Constitution Bill was unconstitutional because the Bill denied landowners access to the court to seek redress for reasonable compensation. Shortly after that ruling was made, Prime Minister Dean Barrow indicated that the decision would be appealed to the Court of Appeal.

That Appeal began in June and continued this morning before Mr. Justice President Elliott Mottley and Justices Boyd Carey and Dennis Morrison. However, in between sittings the Barrow administration amended Clause two of the amendment to include a proviso which - it says - remedies any conflict with the Constitution.

As a result, the AG’s appeal was dismissed on the basis that arguments would be purely academic since the CJ made his ruling on the old Bill, not the one that includes the proviso. So case closed right? Well, not so fast. According to attorneys representing Barry Bowen and the Belize Landowners Association respectively, the new Bill is still unconstitutional.

Eamon Courtenay, Attorney for Barry Bowen

“The issue for our clients is the right of access to the courts and the Bill as amended still denies people access to the court to vindicate their rights whether it be in relation to petroleum or minerals. So that issue is still live.”

Janelle Chanona,

“This morning and part of this afternoon it did appear that the AG’s representative went to pains to say that that is not Government’s intention. Is it just a matter of the wording since the Government has given an undertaking that the intention is not to take away anybody’ s royalties or rights to come to court.”

Eamon Courtenay,

“I think the situation is as my learned friend Ms. Lois said, that the intention of the Government is to put the vesting beyond challenge. Now that may sound iodine and it may sound innocuous but therein lies the rub. Why do I say that? When you say something is beyond challenge, it is inviting the view that you can’t come to court and it is our view that the way they have done it is to ensure that it is at the Constitutional level and that you cannot come to court to challenge it. And if you do come to court, the court has no jurisdiction to entertain your challenge. That in our view cannot stand in a democracy. “

Anthony Sylvestre, Attorney, Belize Landowners Association

“What happen you will recall the so called Referendum case. The judgement of the Court of Appeal was that before there was any amendment to a fundamental right of a Belizean citizen, that that Sixth amendment to the Constitution bill had to be submitted to a referendum to the people of Belize. That hasn’t been done so in our opinion, if the Government were to ask the Governor General [to give] his assent to the bill, there would be a problem where someone would be in contempt of court. “

Eamon Courtenay,

“I really believe that if the draftsman looks at the bill even as it is, it needs further amendment to guarantee to all Belizeans the fundamental right of access to the courts.”

The amended Sixth Amendment to the Constitution was passed in the House of Representatives on October 9th and subsequently approved by the Senate on the 13th. The Landowners say if the Government moves to have the Governor General give his assent to the Bill to make it law, they will have no choice but to launch fresh court action.

For the Attorney General’s representative Lois Young, that position is surprising since in her eyes, the Government’s intention is purely to vest petroleum and mineral rights in the Government of Belize on the level of the Constitution. Young says none’s constitutional rights are being infringed and moreover, the landowners want doesn’t belong to them.

Lois Young, Attorney General’s Representative

“The Prime Minister has been telling the landowners who met with him in his office, exactly this, the bill does not take away your right to royalty. Royalty is like a rent, it does not do this. But they weren’t satisfied with that. What they wanted was the ownership of the petroleum and minerals.”

Janelle Chanona

“They are telling me and even Mr. Bowen’s attorney, that they are still not sure if the new provision to the new bill actually allows for access to the court that maybe the draftsman needs to review it.”

Lois Young,

How can they not be...Don’t be fooled. What do you expect him to say? He has been bested by the Government of Belize. Their little game has been called up. Their game was to shroud their claim behind this thing that oh, royalty has been taken away. All they wanted, not all they wanted, what they wanted was ownership of the petroleum...there’s no doubt that they can still go to the court if there royalty has been taken away or will be taken away by some future piece of legislation...that’s clear.”

As we told you earlier, the amended Bill has been passed by the Senate and is awaiting the Governor General’s assent and we’ll certainly be keeping track of developments there.
Live and let live