OP-Ed: Unacceptable to take a citizen’s property and force her/him to wait years for compensation

Christopher Ram

Dear Editor,

In successive days in the Stabroek News (10 and 11 of May), Mr. Keith Bernard writes about eminent domain – an American term equivalent to compulsory acquisition of private property for public purpose, allowed under the Acquisition of Lands for Public Purposes Act (the Act). The experiences of the land-owners in the pathway of the gas-to-shore pipeline justify Mr. Bernard’s concern for the rights of property owners of land the Government needs for the Demerara Harbour Bridge. In the case of the gas project, without any direction to landowners on the obligations of the State and their rights, senior Government officials met with and deceived them into accepting a seriously undervalued price for their land. Being mostly loyal supporters of the Government, they meekly accepted.

Anyone who refuses the Government’s offer is strung along with the prospect of years of expensive court hearings up to the CCJ, having to pay lawyers’ fees which they may not fully recover, all the while being deprived of their property which may also be their source of livelihood. This is insensitive and cruel, and worse, deliberate and illegal.

The Act sets out extensive provisions – the equivalent of the due process clause in the US Constitution – of the procedures to be followed by the State in such acquisition. Section 9 of the Act, for example, requires the Minister to deposit a certificate that the National Assembly has voted the sum necessary for compensation. No such appropriations are made, let alone a certificate. Second, the Attorney General is known to have presented valuation certificates by the Government’s Chief Valuation Officer (CVO) to be used by handpicked lawyers to try and “settle” with the property owner. Following amendments to the Act in 1975 and 1990, there is absolutely no role for the CVO in the compulsory acquisition process.

Section 13 vests in the Court the power to direct the amount of the compensation to be paid where there is no agreement while section 14 gives the Court the power to give notice to all interested persons of the “time and place to hear and determine the matter”. Note that “all persons” would include not only the property owners but anyone affected by the proposed acquisition. S. 16 gives the AG the opportunity, or any interested person, to appear before the Court and tender any relevant evidence in support of their alleged ‘rights’ and the ‘value’ thereof.

Since “market value” applies to willing buyer and willing seller, section 18 of the Act provides that the market value is only one of several elements of compensation. And section 19 goes even further, granting the Court the power “to award any sum not exceeding such per cent of the market value of the land at the time of awarding compensation to the Court seeming fit.”

I have the greatest respect for the legal knowledge, competence and thoroughness of Attorney General Mr. Anil Nandlall, S.C. It is unbelievable that he has not familiarised himself with a law of such constitutional significance and which he himself amended a couple of years ago. He knows that the compulsion to “win” can never come at the expense of constitutional rights; that the honour and majesty of the law must never be sacrificed on the altar of political service and party convenience; that the blunt instrument of abuse of power is a denial of the rule of law; and that the constitutional guarantee of “prompt payment of adequate compensation” can never be circumvented.  

Instead of fighting aggrieved citizens, Mr. Nandlall should initiate an amendment to the Act to provide for a Board of Assessment to settle any compensation within three months; to ensure that there is an appropriation by the National Assembly for compensation for properties proposed to be acquired; and for the landowner to be paid between 60 and 75 per cent of the assessed value together with not less than 10% as additional payment under section 19 while the dispute is pursued in the courts.  It is unacceptable to compulsorily acquire a citizen’s property and force her/him to wait years before any compensation is paid, while paying lawyers’ fees which they can ill afford.

Sincerely,

Christopher Ram

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