For the past 2 days, Attorneys for the Government of Belize and the Ashcroft Alliance have been in court before Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin. The Ashcroft company, Caribbean Investment Holdings Limited, which used to be named British Caribbean Bank, wants the Central Bank Immunities Act to be struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional.
You'll remember it as the law that the Barrow Administration passed in January to protect the Central Bank's foreign currency reserves. That's because they were convinced that the Ashcroft companies would attempt to attach those assets to collect on an arbitral award of 50 million US dollars. US Courts have already handed down a ruling which allows Alliance to enforce the award against the Government of Belize.
The Government insists that it won't pay a cent, and so the Alliance has been trying to force its hand. All that's been preventing them is an interim injunction granted by Justice Michelle Arana and the Central Bank Immunities Act which makes it a criminal offense to go after the Central Bank's assets. The Ashcroft Company, Caribbean Investments Holdings Limited, has already argued a case before Chief Justice Benjamin as to why that injunction should be lifted, and a decision in that is pending.
So, in the two-day trial, they tackled the other obstacle in the way, the Central Bank Immunities Act, but the Chief Justice had to hear two claims against the same law. The first is from Caribbean Investments, and the next is from Courtenay Coye LLP, which is the law firm of the Ashcroft Alliance's chief lawyer, Eamon Courtenay. The attorneys from this law firm have taken the position that the law unfairly criminalizes the actions of any lawyer who advises litigants trying to enforce arbitration awards.
So, as we're sure you've gathered, it's heavy stuff, since the Central Bank Immunities Act is seeking to protect the bank's reserves, which are the cornerstone of the country's economy.
Just after noon today, the Chief Justice finally closed the case after hearing arguments from all parties in these lawsuits. Our news team was right outside the court to ask the Government and Ashcroft attorneys to briefly discuss their arguments:
Eamon Courtenay, SC - Attorney for CIHL
"The law specifically says that if you act as an advisor to a person who attempts to do the things define in the legislation, you commit a criminal offence. The government has rather strangely written a letter saying that they don't interpret "advisor" to mean a law firm or to be attorneys. Well a lot of my work and the lot of the work of attorneys is advising people. So that's a bizarre position to take for the government, but that is their position. We have no confidence in that. Mr. Hawke, the solicitor general says that he is not aware of any attempt to go after any attorney. That may be the position today, it might not be the position tomorrow and so we need the courts determination of what the legislation says."
"In so far as Caribbean Investment Holding is concern, the argument is essentially this: where you have a judgement or an arbitral award in your favor, the courts has said that that constitutes property. In other words there is an order from a court that somebody is to pay you money. That is property in of itself. What we are saying is that if you pass a law that when it is applied renders that judgement that you have, nugatory, which is of no effect. You can't do anything with it. Then that amounts to an arbitrary deprivation of your property. You might as well tear up the judgement because you can't enforce it. So we say there is a violation of a right to property by an arbitrary deprivation when the legislation is implemented."
"We say secondly, that a party who is in Belize has a right to due process of law to pursue his issues in the courts of this jurisdiction and the courts of other jurisdiction."
Nigel Hawke, Acting Solicitor General
"The court heard arguments yesterday and today in relation to charges to both the amendment to the crown proceedings act and the central bank immunity act of 2017. The most I will say, we had fruitful arguments, the matter is now before the judge. I don't want to prejudice anything, so the most I will say, we advance our arguments as to the constitutionality of the legislation. Some of the things that they've argued in relation to and when it for the improper purpose...we basically submitted to the court that the final court has pronounce on those matters already and our submission is that they are fundamentality seeking to enforce a judgement that our final court has pronounce. It is not enforceable, because it is against our legal order of the constitution on Belize."
Daniel Ortiz, 7News
"If I understand the fundamentals of why this law was passed in the first place, the central bank immunities act, is to protect Belize's foreign reserves. Should this law fall, are you clients giving an undertaking that they will not go after the central bank's assets in trying to seek enforcement of this award?"
Eamon Courtenay, SC - Attorney for CIHL
"I think you are being humorous and so I am going to laugh and that's my answer to that."
In this case, Courtenay, Illiana Swift, and Angeline Welch, appeared on behalf Caribbean Investment's Holdings Limited. The law firm, Courtenay Coye LLP, was represented by Magali Marin Young and Illiana Swift, and the Government of Belize was represented by Acting Solicitor General Nigel Hawke and Crown Counsel Briana Williams.
The judge has reserved judgement to be delivered at a later date in this lawsuit. He was supposed to hand down a judgement in the injunction case today, but that has been postponed until next week Thursday.