Gov’t loses landmark land case twice
Before the battle over the amendment to the constitution, there was always debate on private property and property rights. On January twelfth, 2010, a Benque Viejo Del Carmen resident was watching television when he heard Minister of Economic Development, Erwin Contreras say that his property would be acquired and given to the Mount Carmel High School even though the church-run school already owned undeveloped land. Little did he know that the acquisition notice had already been published in the government gazette. But instead of accepting defeat, Samuel Bruce applied to the Supreme Court for judicial review to stop the government’s acquisition of his land. He recently won that case. It was a landmark ruling in his favor that came during a time when phrases such as Public use, private property, and proper compensation were not yet household sayings that introduced conversations of the ninth amendment. But the Attorney General’s Ministry and the Ministry of Natural Resources appealed the case. At approximately seven p.m. on Tuesday night, before Dennis Morrison, Douglas Mendes and Duke Pollard, Bruce’s attorney Said Musa set precedence in winning a case that other property owners will be citing when any government grabs their property.
“They had eight big lots, and one of the judges pointed out in the Appeal’s Case yesterday, why is it that they had this land since 2002, no school was built. And then conveniently just when this acquisition is taking place now, government writes to the church to cancel the lease. The same government of Belize had given these lots to the church to build the school. Now they cancel that lead, they got the poor pastor to renounce any rights over those eight lots simply because they wanted to get hold of Mr. Bruce’s land. Then chief justice, Conteh, having heard all the evidence—Mister Bruce’s side as well as the government’s side, the lands commissioner, everyone else testify—the Chief Justice ruled that this acquisition was totally illegal—totally in violation of the constitution. Section 17 of the constitution clearly spells out what the law is about taking away people’s property. And this law is saying no property of any description shall be compulsorily taken possession of and no interest in or right over property of any description shall be compulsorily acquired except by under a law that describes the principles and so on and which reasonable compensation is to be determined and given within a reasonable time. And it allows provides for the right of access to court for the purpose of determining whether the taking of possession or acquisition was duly carried out for a public purpose in accordance with the law. What the Chief Justice found was that it wasn’t really a public purpose. It was really confiscating Mr. Bruce’s land with denial of any discussion of compensation. They arranged for workmen to go into his landand start chopping down trees and virtually asserting ownership by the government without any regard to his rights. And as the Chief Justice at the time pointed out, whenever you are invading people’s property and purporting to take it away by force, by compulsory acquisition; the government has an obligation to first of all hear from the land owner what are your concerns and rights because the law provides for it. The land acquisition public purposes act says you must engage and enter into negotiations to purchase the land before you talk about acquiring it this way. I am giving you all this background because I think it’s important. This is a landmark case that I believe will provide comfort to Belizeans—local as well as foreign investors—that in our law, our constitution, you can’t just give away taking people’s property just like that. They must do things in a rational and reasonable way and whosoever’s property is being acquire—if properly done—must be able to secure prompt and adequate compensation in a reasonable time. That is the law. Now it is important for many reasons because this case was also cited even before the Court of Appeal heard it yesterday. The Bruce case was cited in the very same British Caribbean Bank case and the Dean Boyce case against the Attorney General and Telemedia when the first acquisition took place. And in that very case, the Court of Appeal found that the total acquisition, there was no public purpose really because they did not satisfy the law on what was a public purpose. Similarly in this case, even though on the face of it, it looks very respectable that the government want to take this land in order to help this church to build an infant school and so on, the fact of the matter is there were so many things done in the Bruce case which suggest it wasn’t done properly.”