“The quandary has been how come Mr. Rodwell Williams, Sr., ended up with the title …” – Yearwoods’ attorney
The land dispute between Rodwell Williams, Jr., and the Yearwood family of Cemetery Lane—over a property measuring 16 feet by 18 feet, substantially smaller than a conventional lot size—went before Supreme Court Justice Rita Olivette today, as she deliberated over an application to issue an injunction against the Yearwoods from stopping Williams from using the property under dispute.
Justice Olivette noted that underlying this entire claim is a dispute over the title to the land. The claimant thinks the land is his. The defendants are saying that Williams’ attempt to put a chattel house on the property marked the first time they became aware that someone was trying to claim what they considered to be their land.
“You have to understand it was a shocker – not only that he [Williams] had title but you bring the [Belize Defence Force] and the police to enforce this title,” Audrey Matura-Shepherd, attorney for the Yearwoods, told the media, outside the hearing.
“It’s amazing what goes on in this country. The Prime Minister was right when he said the Lands Department is a hotbed of corruption, ‘cause you never know who will end up with your title,” she added.
The attorney told us that under law, one way by which a title can be defeated is if it was obtained by fraud.
“The quandary has been how come Mr. Rodwell Williams, Sr., ended up with the title and all that went into getting him that title—that doesn’t mean that they [the Yearwoods] don’t have a claim to that land,” she told the press.
According to Matura-Shepherd, the Williams have not lived on that property for the last 40 years, and there has not been a structure on the land since 2003. She said that the last person to have lived there was an uncle of the Youngs.
According to the Yearwoods, they are descendants of Richard Young of Gracie Rock, who had deeded the property collectively to his descendants—a deed which the family told us was made in perpetuity, back in the 1930s, with the intent that the land should remain in the family.
Williams is not family, they said, and so in their view, he has no claim to the land under dispute. They told our newspaper in a prior interview that when Jimmy Williams, the grandfather of Rodwell Williams, had no place to live, their grandfather permitted him to live there. The Williams family stayed three generations, but Rodwell, Sr., later moved on.
However, Williams, Jr., acting as attorney for his father, Rodwell Williams, Sr., has told Amandala that they have a government-issued title to the land. Williams is now accusing the Yearwoods of trespassing on the land the Yearwoods contend has always belonged to their ancestor.
Matura-Shepherd, attorney for the Yearwoods, told the court today that the dispute began on Saturday, October 26, 2013, when Williams not only sent the police—but also military officers—to the property in question.
The Young family was asked to remove their vehicles from that portion of land the Williams are now claiming.
Williams has claimed that the police were called out to keep the peace and asked the defendants to stand down. The Yearwoods uttered violent threats to him and to the police, Williams has alleged.
However, Matura-Shepherd told the court that events did not happen the way Williams had claimed.
“The police didn’t come after the fact to keep the peace,” she said.
“The police came from early in the morning, began patrolling. There was no house there. There wasn’t activity on the land. They [the Yearwoods] were not told why police were there. The police [later] came onto the land and demanded that they move their vehicle and not only did the police come, they even brought the military – members of the Belize Defence Force,” Matura Shepherd told the court.
Citing affidavits from Sean Martinez, Elaine Yearwood, Sharette Yearwood and Gary Yearwood, she told the court: “It was not until about 11 o’clock [that Saturday morning] that they knew that a house was going to be placed on this property that they consider their property.”
She told the court that the Youngs had no indication that anyone other than their family had rights over this property.
Matura-Shepherd said that the wrong impression had been given of how the Yearwoods handled the situation. The picture painted that they just wanted to maliciously stop Williams is not the right one, she told the court.
She said that Williams never presented any documents to the Youngs – neither did they give notice to the family of the title presented to the court, and even after they made requests for proof of ownership, it was not forthcoming.
Matura-Shepherd conveyed her clients’ position – that there is no way the Williams family could have inherited the property, because their grandfather had only given lodging to Jimmy Williams.
“As far as they are concerned, someone else is violating their property,” said Matura-Shepherd.
She explained to the media that, “When they applied for the injunction, they also served what we call a fixed date claim form in which they are saying the claim which we have against them is for trespass, and that matter hasn’t been heard. That actually will have to go to full trial, wherein he has to prove that they trespassed and we have to prove that they did not trespass. This matter will get a bit complicated.”
She also told us after the court session that back in 1998, Rodwell Williams Sr., the father, applied for the land by prescription, which she likened to “squatter rights.”
“What was interesting is they went to court in 1999—we would say without proper evidence—they granted him that order that he was asking for. It was not until 2007 that he was issued the land,” Matura-Shepherd told the press.
“What’s critical here is that at no point were these people who are living on this land, whose family has been there time immemorial, ever knew that that was afoot,” she added.
Rodwell Williams, Jr., has been adamant that he has and ought to be allowed to exercise rights over the Cemetery Lane property, where he said he had lived as a child.
Nigel Ebanks told Justice Olivette that he had spoken by telephone with Rodwell Williams, Jr., who was not in Belize at the time, and he had conveyed that he is willing to accept an undertaking from the other side that they would not interfere with his use and enjoyment of the Cemetery Lane property, or the use and enjoyment by his agents until trial or judgment, but that he, Williams, is not prepared to give an undertaking to the court that he would desist from using the property.
Ebanks told the court that there is no indication that that title is an illegitimate title, and that the title has been in existence since 2007, registered on the public register.
He said that the title exhibited to the court is dated October 24, 2007.
“On the other hand, none of the defendants or respondents have produced any title to the property, or have shown that they would be the legal owners or the rightful legal owners of the property,” he said.
“Apart from that, every one of the affidavits supporting the application says they [the Yearwoods] consider the property family land and have used the property as they please,” which, “is, in our view, clear evidence that the respondents have, in fact, trespassed on to the property,” Ebanks said.
Ebanks referred to the affidavit of Sean Martinez, a resident on the Young property, who said that they always had use and enjoyment of the spot the Williams’ are claiming and could not imagine it being owned by anyone else but the Young family.
Ebanks said that it would be outside of the court’s jurisdiction to make such a coercive order against Williams, fettering him from using the property.
Anthony Sylvester, Jr., one of the attorneys for the defendants, asked the court to consider making an order to preserve the status quo – that is, that no structure should be put up on the land and that the land should not be sold.
Sylvester pointed to evidence Williams submitted to the court, signaling that he does intend to proceed with the erection of a property on the premises.
He argued that under law, a registered title is indefeasible, and such an order to stop Williams to proceed with using and enjoying the property would require the disputing party to give an undertaking as to pay damages to his client, in the event that they lose the lawsuit. He said that all four defendants would have to give that undertaking—which they have not done.
Ebanks told the court that none of the defendants are named as beneficiaries under the Young will, and none of them are the personal representative or executrix of the will, who had been named as Eleanor E. Young.
Sharette Yearwood simply refers to Young as an ancestor, and does not say actually how they are related.
A will is not title to land, and the interest in that will, if any, could not defeat the registered title, Ebanks told Justice Olivette.
Justice Olivette decided not to extend the injunction that Williams had gotten against the Yearwood family. She also ruled that she could not issue an injunction against Williams, but cautioned that it would be foolhardy for someone aware of the dispute to take steps that would turn out to be futile and that may result in them having to pay compensation to the other party.
Justice Olivette said that, “At first blush, the court sympathizes” with the Yearwoods, since it seems, on the face of it, that they were taken by surprise by the existence of a title to land they believed to be theirs.
“However, it is a court of law and not a court of sympathy,” she added.
“Having listened to arguments,” she said, “I tend to agree with Mr. Ebanks.”
She said that the court does not have the authority to go so far as to grant an injunction in this case against Williams, but this does not preclude the proper persons claiming title from filing an application to the court seeking remedy.
Matura-Shepherd told the court that it cannot look at the situation in a vacuum, as it is not a clear-cut situation.
“This has been a family plot since 1914—as it seems from the will. They lived there; they moved about it,” she told the court.
After Olivette’s decision, the attorney for the Yearwoods told the press: “That’s not the end of the matter. We have a lot of other legal recourse that we will be following through, because clearly this is a land dispute. Even though he is exhibiting now that he has title, these people are disputing the way that title could have been obtained. They’ve been living on the land. They weren’t even asked to give an affidavit to say if they agree he [Williams] gets it by way of prescription.”
Today’s session was merely to discuss whether the injunction against the Yearwoods should remain in effect. The court has yet to set a date for full hearing; however, both parties have asked for an expedited trial.