Legall denies GOB request to strike out Oceana challenge against 6 oil contracts
BELIZE CITY, Fri. Aug. 24, 2012
The fight by Oceana Belize, and its collaborators the Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage and Citizens Organization for Liberty through Action (COLA), to keep offshore drilling out of Belizean waters, home to the largest and most majestic barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere, will continue in court, following another round of legal victory the parties scored this morning.
“We are very optimistic moving forward,” Oceana Belize’s Vice President, Audrey Matura-Shepherd, told the media following the ruling. “It is a victory, a second round two – because as you can recall, they [the Government] had even opposed the joiner of the Coalition and COLA. So we won that round, round two, and we have round three… it might end up to 4, 5 or 12 like in a boxing ring…”
The Government of Belize (GOB) had asked the Supreme Court to strike out Oceana’s case brought in 2011, seeking a declaration on the legality of 6 offshore petroleum contracts and asking the court for an order certiorari to quash them as null and void.
GOB staked its case on two legal technicalities: that Oceana failed to file its case within a year of having a cause of action and it failed to give 30 days’ notice. However, the court has ruled that there were really no such requirements applicable to this case, and it has, consequently, denied the Government’s application, now paving the way for the case to proceed to full hearing.
Supreme Court Justice Oswell Legall issued that decision just after 9:00 a.m. He said that, based on comments made by the Court of Appeal in the Gilharry versus Department of Transport matter—a decision which the judge said is binding on him—the requirements cited by the Government from the Public Authorities Protection Act, for a 30-day notice period and a 1-year limit for bringing lawsuits, do not apply to judicial review proceedings or to the offshore drilling case before him and so he is free to proceed with the hearing.
In terms of the request by Oceana for an order to quash the oil contracts—which the Government has likewise vigorously opposed, on the grounds that the court’s permission was not sought—Justice Legall ruled that the court has the power to proceed with that nonetheless. He cited the second appeal lodged before the Caribbean Court of Justice in 2006, in which Justice Saunders et al spoke of the value of rendering proper justice.
Legall commented that justice is not served by denying a hearing because of a purely procedural breach. He then announced his decision to deny the Government’s application to have the Oceana case struck out.
Matura-Shepherd said that the request for the order certiorari is important, and the Government argued against it because they would not want those offshore contracts to be declared illegal and ineffective from the start.
Government’s Crown Counsel, Herbert Panton, who has been assisted in this case by his fellow Crown Counsel Nigel Hawke, informed the court that he would be filing an application to strike out affidavits, in advance of the hearing of the matter. One witness that the Government will move to challenge is the oil industry expert, Elmer Danenberger, former chief of Offshore Regulatory Programs for the Minerals Management Service in the USA, but Panton declined to get into further details until the hearing. According to Matura-Shepherd, Danenberger is providing evidence on the procedures for contracts and the safety nets that are needed for such contracts.
Whereas Panton said he would have wanted to have been done with this case today, he accepts the judge’s decision to let it proceed: “The judge is the final arbiter in these matters. The fact of the matter is, we are in the very preliminary stage.”
“We have put the court on notice that our intention next week is to file an additional application to strike out two affidavits that they have filed, so this case is in its early stages, and there is quite a distance yet to go,” said Panton.
Matura-Shepherd said that the ruling is an example of how the judiciary is critical for keeping democracy alive.
“For Oceana, the Coalition and COLA, it means that now we will be able to discuss the merits of our case in the judicial system and have a ruling,” she said.
Matura-Shepherd said that they are not surprised by the Government’s new application to have the affidavits struck out. Their strategy, she said, is to delay as much as possible and to erode the substance of their case. She called it “technical maneuvering,” but is unmoved by it, she said, because she believes in the court system and in justice.
The next tier of the legal proceedings will be Government’s challenge to certain affidavits filed by the claimants. Matura-Shepherd said that they will know by September 12 what the Government is actually moving to strike out, and they will come prepared to respond to them. That session is due to commence at 9:00 a.m.