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Sep 25, 2008

Businessman wins round 1 of constitutional case

Story PictureIn July businessman Barry Bowen filed a claim against the government of Belize objecting to a proposed amendment to section seventeen of the constitution. In that amendment, G.O.B. sought to vest the ownership of the petroleum and minerals rights in the hands of the government, but also denied access to the courts to persons wishing to challenge it. Bowen felt that by removing access to the courts, government was trampling on his constitutional rights. On September seventeenth, the Attorney General applied to the Supreme Court to have the application dismissed and on Wednesday Bowen’s attorneys Eamon Courtenay and Magali Marin and Lois Young for the A.G. appeared in the courtroom of Justice Abdulai Conteh to present their arguments. Courtney told us what transpired.

Eamon Courtenay, Attorney for Barry Bowen
“Government was arguing three points. Firstly, they were saying that the action by Mr. Bowen to challenge a bill was premature because it had not yet been assented to by the Governor General and that their argument was that until it becomes law we should not be able to challenge it. We were able to show the court that the court does have jurisdiction to entertain a claim against a bill even before it becomes law. The second point was that even if they were wrong on that, it can only be done in exceptional circumstances and they were saying there were no exceptional circumstances in the case. The Chief Justice agreed with us that there were very exceptional circumstances in this case. One, it is an amendment to the constitution. It’s an amendment to the fundamental rights and freedoms of the constitution and that is the first time ever in the history of Belize that a government is seeking to take away rights from citizens that already exist. The Chief Justice found those to be very exceptional circumstances and decided that he would be able to entertain the case at this time. The third ground on which the government was trying to have the case thrown out was that they said Mr. Bowen did not have standing. What the lawyers called locus standi. Again, the chief justice found that the modern approach to public law claims when there is a challenge to the constitution or a judicial review claim is that unless you absolutely do not have any basis to come to court, the court will entertain a claim from a citizen. The Chief Justice found that Mr. Bowen is a landowner, that he is a not a meddlesome or troublesome frequent person that comes to court and he found that this is a very vital matter of public importance that needs a determination by the court.”

The case on the substantive matter has been set for October twenty-eighth to the thirtieth. Courtenay says it’s in the interests of all Belizeans to stay tuned to what transpires in the case.

Eamon Courtenay
“Interestingly, the Referendum Act had put in that provision that said that if you are going to take away the fundamental rights of people that you must first go to the people in a referendum and say you are going to take away a particular right for whatever reason and if the people approve it, then the constitution should be amended. So in a sense the two matters should be seen together.”

Kendra Griffith
“And there is a referendum case also before the courts.”

Eamon Courtenay
“That case, I understand, is before the Court of Appeal and should be heard in the next session on the fifth or sixth of October. That appeal is going to be heard in that session. And the question there really is, is a referendum required under the Referendum Act for this law to go through with respect to the taking away of fundamental rights and freedoms. That also is a very important case for citizens’ rights. These cases are about empowering citizens, about having access, going to court, testing public interest issues and therefore I think Belizeans should pay keen attention to what the courts say on these issues. Whether we as citizens, whether we as Belizeans, whether we as people living here have the right to go and challenge amendments to the constitution that seeks to take away our rights.”

The referendum judicial review was filed by former Belize Times Editor Alberto Vellos and a group of citizens. Using their majority in the House of Representatives, the U.D.P. passed the Constitutional Amendments on August twenty-second. However, Prime Minister Dean Barrow promised that he would not send it to the Governor General to be signed into law until the matter of the referendum was settled.


Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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