CCJ Withering Rebuke To Barrow Admin On Registriesí Takeover

Belize, like the rest of the world is currently in the midst of an economic crisis created by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and tonight, the Barrow Government is bracing for another body blow. That's after the Caribbean Court of Justice has ruled that GOB owes many millions more in damages to the Ashcroft Alliance.

As we told you, the Government and the Ashcroft company, Belize International Services Limited (BISL), has been waiting for a ruling the Government's 2013 acquisition of the International Merchant Marine Registry of Belize (IMMARBE) and the International Business Companies (IBC) Registry.

In June of 1993, BISL entered into a management services agreement with the Government for these two registries. In May 2003, the agreement was renewed for a further 10 years, but in March 2005, the Musa Administration agreed with BISL to extend it once again to 2020.

We fast forward to 2013 when the Prime Minister and his government stepped in and nationalized the registries on the premise that this extension was unlawful and illegal.

BISL challenged the nationalization in the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal and lost in both cases. They appealed once more to the Caribbean Court of Justice, and after extensive arguments from both sides, and careful consideration by 4 judges of the CCJ, they today delivered their ruling on BISL's appeal.

It's some of the strongest languages we've seen the court used since that famous "malignant tumors" comment in their decision about the Accommodation Agreement.

At paragraph 368 of the 144-page judgment, the CCJ says, quote, "The omissions by the Government to take any reasonable steps to try and resolve its issues with BISL collaboratively and amicably, together with its unilateral and high-handed actions to take over the Registries were contextually arbitrary, inconsistent with the standards of good governance, in breach of the duty of good faith, contractually unreasonable, fundamentally unfair, an abuse of State power, and therefore contrary to the rule of law. Taken together these all constitute a serious threat to, and undermining of, fundamental and core constitutional values and principles. They also weaken the integrity of the legal system, especially if the government is permitted to enjoy exemption from its failure to comply with its rule of law obligations in this case. And as well, left unaccounted for they diminish constitutional faith and public trust, and hence democratic legitimacy."

The court's decision was broadcasted via YouTube this evening, and we have a few choice excerpts from the 50-minute summary that the court's readout. Here's that now:

Ashcroft Alliance Attorney Expresses Satisfaction

This afternoon, we spoke with attorneys for both sides. We start first with the preliminary comments from Eamon Courtenay, the attorney for BISL who has been pressing this case on behalf of his clients for 7 years.

Here's what he had to say:

Eamon Courtenay SC- Attorney for BISL

"The court has found that the government acted unconstitutionally and illegally in a high-handed way in taking over the registries without any court order permitting them to do so. They have remitted the matter to the supreme court for the supreme court to calculate the amount of damages that should be paid. I think it is important for Belizeans to appreciate that once again the court has found that there was a valid and binding agreement and the actions of the government has caused Belize to be liable for tens of millions of dollars in damages. Anybody who has a dispute about any agreement, the proper thing to do is to go to court and determine who is right or wrong. No, abusing state power the government took these registries forcibly, the result today is we have to go back to court for the supreme court to determine how much the government should pay. I would point out to you that during the trial, the original trial, the expert from the government said that he believes that they should get nothing because the agreement was unlawful. But if the court finds that what has happened is wrong then the minimum that BISL should get is US$24 million. My client's expert said they should get US$45 million. So now, when we go back to the supreme court it will be between that US$24 million which the government says and the US$45 million, of course there is interest and expenses and all of this. The second part of what you asked me, I think the court has used extremely strong language to condemn what the government has done because the government has acted in a very high-handed and unconstitutional way but more importantly or perhaps just as importantly, the court has signaled that when the government behaves like this it undermines investors confidence, it undermines the business community's confidence, it undermines the sanctity of contracts, it erodes people's confidence in Belize as a jurisdiction and the court will not allow a government to continue to do this and it will insist that damages be paid for someone who has suffered like Belize International. One judge said that there was great damage done to this company as a result of the government."

AG Says CCJ Emotional

Here now are the comments from government's lawyer, the Attorney General, Michael Peyrefitte, reacting to the judgment which issued a withering rebuke to his government:

Hon. Michael Peyrefitte- Attorney General
"I am not going to be emotional like the CCJ, they made a decision, they are the final appellate court and we are bound by that decision. They said that even though they admitted that in the judgement, when the PUP entered into the contract with Michael Ashcroft in 1993 and when the PUP extended the contract from 2005 to 2020, that it was basically illegal, that they believed that nevertheless there was a breach of contract by the government. That is their position, we disagree with it but they are the final court of appeal and we have to accept that. Now we go to the Supreme Court for an assessment of damages and at that stage the Supreme Court will determine how much damages they believe that the Government should be and if a party is not satisfied with that assessment at the Supreme Court then you go through the appellate process all over again."

Daniel Ortiz- Reporter
"We are talking about tens of millions of dollars that this could turn out to be, obviously Belize can't afford that right now. What are your thoughts on us ever satisfying this decision?"

Hon. Michael Peyrefitte
"Well, I mean, we are bound by the decision and whatever assessment the Supreme Court comes with down the road, or maybe even then CCJ themselves come with down the road, the government of Belize will have to find the money to pay the damages. And then after that whichever parliament is responsible at that time will have to decide either to vote for the money or not vote for the money."

We'll have a little bit more both attorneys in tomorrow's newscast, discussing the details and implications of the judgment.

Channel 7