Historic ruling states Attorney General can sue former ministers to recover lost revenues

Government advocate Lois Young helped to strike a blow for fair play.
In October last year, the Chief Justice Dr. Abdulai Conteh ruled that the Attorney General did not have the legal authority to bring a civil suit against two former PUP Ministers accused of selling government lands in Belize City market value.

Attorney General (at the time) Sedi Elrington wanted to hold former Lands Minister Florencio "Lencho" Marin and former Trade and Commerce Minister Jose Coye responsible for malfeasance when Marin sold and Coye bought (through a family owned company) 56 Caribbean Shores house lots at a price of $4,000 each when the true value of the land was closer to $19,000 per lot.

In his demand for compensation, the Attorney General estimated the Government of Belize was short-changed out of more than $900,000 by the two ministers acting in collusion.

The appeal, led by Lois Young Barrow, representing GOB, was heard by Justice Mottley, President of the Court of Appeal and Justices Manuel Sosa and Justice Dennis Morrison and concluded last week.

In it Justice Mottley pointed out that only the Attorney General is enabled by law to deal with such a problem.

He went on to explain:

"The first respondent, as Minister responsible for national lands, when purporting to dispose of those lands owned the owner of those lands a duty to act within the parameters established by the Act.

"If he abused his office and acted mala fides, and the Government as owner... suffered loss or damage, the government is entitled... to recover the loss or damage sustained.

"and if the government... suffered loss as a result of the failure of the Ministers to exercise their duty under the Act... the issue arises whether exemplary damages may be recovered against them in their personal capacity.

"Such action..... may only in law be instituted by the Attorney General. Without such action, the government as owner would suffer irreparable harm.

"For these reasons I do not agree with the conclusion reached by the Chief Justice that the Attorney General has no locus standi to institute an action for the tort of malfeasance in public office.

"I hold that the Attorney General .... has locus standi to institute an action against the respondents claiming damages in tort for malfeasance leading to the loss which it is alleged that the Government suffered by the land being sold at below-market price."

Justice Mottley went on to state:

"Even if I am wrong in the conclusion which I have reached, the Chief justice ought not to have dismissed the action.... This action concerned allegations that the former Ministers of Government had abused their office by acting in manner that they knew was detrimental to the government or they were reckless in their conduct....

By their very nature, these actions are serious and need full investigations by a court of law....

The ruling by the court of appeal is sure to have a powerful impact on the way Ministers of government behave in the future.

If a minister knows that he can be sued for malfeasance long after he leaves office, and that the court can order him to pay compensation from his personal assets, he will think twice before contemplating any hanky-panky which deprives the government of any of its revenue.

This case deals only with situations where a Minister of government short-changes the government of its revenue in order to help a third party.

But there are mounting cases where a Minister of Government will deprive a person of his lease to benefit a third party or in some cases to benefit himself or his own family.

These are cases where the Attorney General would have no status under the law, but the aggrieved party would have grounds for bringing a civil action or tort against the Minister after the minister has left office.

The Reporter