Recently, the Barrow Administration has been on a major losing streak in court battles against the Ashcroft Alliance, but today, they got a major win in the Caribbean Court of Justice. The CCJ is not going to immediately force the Government to pay that over 90-million-dollar judgment for the Universal Health Services debacle. The Court is going to wait and see what Belize's parliament does first.
In March, the Belize Bank asked the CCJ, to compel the Government pay that debt immediately. That's after the CCJ ruled 5 months earlier that Belize has to pay it.
The Barrow Administration says it accepted the court's judgement, but only Parliament has to power to authorize payment out of the Consolidated Revenue Fund.
Early in the New Year, Prime Minister Dean Barrow tabled the bill to pay this debt in the House - but no vote was taken. Since then, it's not been brought back to the House, and a majority of the UDP Area Reps have already told 7News that they would vote against it.
And in anticipation of that, Belize Bank Attorney Eamon Courtenay made this March 14 application to circumvent the parliamentary approval. Well, in today's judgment, the CCJ says that it has to respect the authority of Belize's Parliament, and it cannot compel the Government to pay the UHS debt without allowing that bill to go through Parliament.
In a 5-page judgement handed down this morning, the court says quote, "The Bank alleged that the GOB, instead of "whipping in" its members to vote on an Appropriation Bill to cover the debt, would ensure that its Bill would not be passed by the device of allowing its party members in the House of Representatives to have a free "conscience" vote… While we could understand these fears, courts have to presume (in the absence of evidence to the contrary) that Governments will act in proper fashion to accord due respect to judgments of the courts and not deprive successful litigants of the fruits of their litigation against Governments. Thus, the Bank's application was premature: one has to wait and see what actually transpires."
With that, they dismissed the application from the Ashcroft Alliance, and ordered them to pay the Government's court costs.
We reached out to attorney Eamon Courtenay for comment, but up until news time, he has not responded to our request. Attorney General Michael Peyrefitte, who is currently out of the country, granted us an interview via Skype this morning, and he told us that the outcome was just as he had expected. Here's how he explained why:
Hon. Michael Peyrefitte - Attorney General
"I don't see any surprises in the judgment. I thought from the very beginning that the law was clear. The CCJ made it very clear that to enforce and order of that court, you'd have to start from the lower courts; you'd have to go to the Supreme Court. So, nothing was wrong with what they were trying to do, but to start at the apex court was not what they should have done. You needed to enforce it at the Supreme Court level, and then, and at the Court of Appeal, and if necessary, then go back to the CCJ. But, they had no jurisdiction to bring what they were bringing. Notably, of course, the CCJ also mentioned that this is something that parliament will have to vote for. They kind of gave an opinion, to a certain extent - a very cagey and astute statement they made about the parliament could vote on it, but then, you have to consider international investors and the like, and stuff like that. But, they made it very clear, as we have been trying to make for so long, that parliament has to vote for this money. The courts are separate from parliament, separate from the executive, and so, at some point in time parliament would have to vote. They're trying to express their confidence that parliament would vote in a certain way, but they pretty much conceded that parliament is parliament, and they can vote how they want."
So, what about the part of the judgement where the court has said that it can appreciate the Alliance's concern? Their main complaint is that the Government, through parliament, may seek to avoid paying the UHS arbitral award which the court has ordered. As you saw, the court says that it has to give the Government the benefit of the doubt. We challenged the Attorney General on the possibility that if and when the Prime Minister's Appropriations Bill to satisfy the debt is voted on in parliament, it will most likely play out just as the Alliance suspects:
"The fact remains that the parliamentary procedure will be followed, properly, and carefully, but the end result, the final effect of all of this is that the Ashcroft Alliance may very well be denied the fruits of their litigation labor."
Hon. Michael Peyrefitte
"Well, it was incumbent upon the Ashcroft Alliance to ensure - look, the Ashcroft Alliance have some of the best lawyers in the world, you know. They know, or they should have known that upon - for them to collect on an agreement like this, you should go to parliament. You should go to parliament. Michael Ashcroft's lawyers should have told him, 'Lord Ashcroft, you will not be able to collect on an agreement like this unless parliament votes to appropriate that money.' So, either he got bad advice from his lawyers, or he felt that he was so big and bad that we would be scared and just give him his money. That's not how it works. You could believe that you are in bed with Said Musa, or Johnny Briceno, or anybody from the PUP. The fact of the matter is when the UDP is in Government, for you to get money from the consolidated revenue fund, there will be a vote by the people. If the members of parliament vote yes, to pay the money, then he will be paid. But, we can't tell the members of the House how to vote. The Prime Minister cannot instruct the members of the House on how to vote, because in the House, everybody is on an equal level. So, who knows? We may vote yes, or it may be a no vote. We don't know what the result of that will be."
But sir, to say that we may vote yes, or we may vote no is to be a bit disingenuous when many of the parliamentarians said, 'I am not support that'. So at the end of the day, checkmate, Mr. Ashcroft, we beat you."
Hon. Michael Peyrefitte
"Well, according to the infinitely wise member for Cayo South, the members on the Government side were only talking big. When they get to the House, they will vote yes, according to him. So, according to him, it should be a guaranteed 'yes' vote, so we don't know. We don't now, but however, they vote, that is their right."
The Court also made it known that the Ashcroft Alliance should not have come straight to them.
In their judgment the CCJ says quote, "It was not appropriate to make this application to this Court… If it transpires that the Bank's worst fears materialize and GOB enacts no legislation for payment of the monies it owes, the Bank needs to approach the Supreme Court for a declaration that the Minister of Finance has failed to comply with his obligations… and an order that the Minister of Finance pay the amount due under the Registrar's Certificate.…some fundamental issues affecting Belizean society and the rule of law arise that will need input from the Belizean courts before a fully informed consideration in this final appellate court."