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IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST: Little respect for the law

Roy R. Morris

IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST: Little respect for the law

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Within the context of how we do things in Barbados, and the Caribbean generally, Shanique Myrie got her money “in less than no time”. And rightly so.
Many Barbadians still do not believe the Caribbean Court of Justice came to the right decision, and hold strongly to the position that she should not have received “one red cent”. As far as I am concerned, that does not matter.
We subscribe to a particular system of justice, and that means that even if we do not agree with the outcome of a particular case, we still respect the judgment of those we appoint to adjudicate. More importantly, we demonstrate our respect for the system, not with lip service, but by complying with the edicts of the adjudicating individual or body.
That’s essentially what we mean when we speak of the rule of law. Yes, there is more to it than that, but in its most unadulterated sense that’s what we expect from our citizens when it comes to respecting our judicial system. And when I say “citizens” I cover Government under the heading – and that applies regardless of which party is in office.
So, the question is: Why is it that almost one decade after respected jurist Sir Denys Williams, acting as an arbitrator, awarded $34 490 518 in damages to contractor Al Barrack against the National Housing Corporation, over the construction of what is now known as the Warrens Office Complex, he is yet to receive any kind of settlement?
Given the nature of the judgment, the arbitrator also awarded interest dating back to the submission of the matter for arbitration in July 2002, which moved the total award at the time of the decision to almost $50 million. The Barbados Labour Party (BLP) was in power for two years after the decision and Barrack was not paid.
Considered in relation to the handling of the Myrie matter, the BLP had more than enough time to do right by Al Barrack.
But then the Dems came to office and have been there for almost seven years and still this matter remains outstanding, in a country where we have more lawyers per capita than we had sugar cane per acre in the heyday of the industry. In a country where our politicians, dominated by lawyers, spout all kinds of platitudes about the rule of law. In a country where adults are so quick to refer to the youth as lawless.
If the Al Barrack matter does not dramatise the level of hypocrisy in our society, then nothing else can.
But we cannot look at this purely as a legal matter. It speaks to a lack of respect for taxpayers by both parties. What kind of system do we operate when a small group of men and women can sit around a table and make all kinds of decisions about all kinds of matters big and small, giving the citizenry the impression that they represent the fount of all knowledge, and then allow a $34.5 million judgment to mount into a debt of nearly $100 million today?
If that kind of “wuflessness”, as we Bajans know it, is not legitimate grounds for dismissing a government, then I don’t know what is.
And in the face of this, our politicians would like us to take them seriously – to take them at their word.
Here’s a snapshot of some of the public utterances on this saga:
• September 10, 2006: Minister of Housing and Lands Reginald Farley expressed surprise at the ruling, and said a preliminary assessment suggested there could be grounds for appeal.
• September 14, 2006: Prime Minister Owen Arthur said he too was taken by surprise by the award of the arbitrator, but it had been referred to “the lawyers”.
• September 22, 2006: The People’s Empowerment Party called for an enquiry into the settlement.
• May 11, 2008: Barrack reported he was under immense financial pressure from his creditors and begged Government to settle the case.
• July 10, 2008: Supreme Court Justice Jacqueline Cornelius confirmed the arbitrator’s decision.
• February 20, 2009: Minister of Housing Michael Lashley accused the former BLP administration of wasting close to $90 million on the Al Barrack matter.
• April 29, 2009: Al Barrack became an official member of the Democratic Labour Party at its annual conference, apparently hoping this would assist him in getting his money.
• December 18, 2009: A frustrated Al Barrack declared himself owner of the National Housing Corporation (NHC) headquarters building on Country Road and all its contents.
• December 20, 2009: Minister of Housing Michael Lashley called Barrack’s claim “frivolous and vexatious”, saying his job was to house Barbadians and he would not be sidetracked by Barrack.
• December 21, 2009: Prime Minister David Thompson said of Al Barrack: “He will definitely be paid!” He added: “There has never been an occasion when the Government of Barbados has had an obligation that it has not eventually paid.”
• December 23, 2009: Al Barrack disclosed he had been approached by two entities willing to buy out Government’s debt to him and settle the matter.
• January 8, 2010: After a series of public exchanges between Barrack and Government operatives, Prime Minister David Thompson declared: “I am finished with that!” and that he would “make no further personal intervention” in the matter.
• October 15, 2010: Al Barrack painted himself white and staged a public protest to demand payment from Government.
• January 19, 2012: Central Bank Governor Dr DeLisle Worrell revealed Government had factored in some major payouts in its 2012 Budget that would include Barrack’s millions.
• February 21, 2012: Minister of Housing Michael Lashley said Government was working feverishly to pay Al Barrack the millions owed.
• September 23, 2012: Sunday Sun reported that Government had offered Barrack a compromised sum of $60 millions as a settlement.
• November 18, 2012: Prime Minister Freundel Stuart pledged that Al Barrack would get his $77 million: “This is one of those issues that has ended up in my lap. We did not create the problem but we are called upon to solve it. We recognise this is a matter which we would have to solve because of judicial decisions which have been made in respect of it.”
• December 6, 2012: Minister of Housing Michael Lashley, describing the Barrack debt as a drag on the NHC, said the contractor would “soon” be paid.
• January 12, 2013: Minister of Housing Michael Lashley confirmed that Cabinet had approved the sale of NHC property to facilitate payment of Al Barrack.
• January 13, 2013: Minister of Housing Michael Lashley called for a commission of enquiry to determine how Al Barrack got the contract to construct the Warrens Office Complex in the first place.
• August 15, 2013: Minister of Housing Denis Kellman told the House of Assembly he was waiting to sign off on the relevant documents so Barrack could be paid. “I have cleared the way, the Cabinet of Barbados has cleared the way, the Minister of Finance has cleared the way. We have done our part and we are just waiting for the file to sign off on the Barrack issue.”
• August 16, 2013: Al Barrack dismissed Kellman’s disclosure as more old talk.
When those who lead us show, through their actions, such scant respect for the law while speaking so flatteringly at every public occasion they get, what can we reasonably expect from the average Joe. Which average citizen would be allowed to disrespect the judicial system like this and walk around thumping his own chest?
I submit that Shanique Myrie got only paid because she and her Jamaican representatives had the wherewithal to embarrass Barbados, its people and its Government. Neither Al Barrack nor former Urban Development Commission boss George Edghill, who was awaiting his court awarded settlement before Myrie, has that power.
So life goes on in our banana republic as we seek developed nation status.