Turks and Caicos government seizes ruling party headquarters

By Caribbean News Now contributor

PROVIDENCIALES, Turks and Caicos Islands — On Wednesday, the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) government peacefully re-entered Progress House, the ruling Progressive National Party (PNP) headquarters building in Providenciales, and changed the locks to recover possession of the land.

This follows a Supreme Court ruling on 12 July 2013, confirming that the land has always been and remains Crown land. The property was empty when the locks were changed.

The acting attorney general, Rhondalee Braithwaite, commented: “After the court’s clear ruling in July that the land belonged to the Crown, the attorney general said that we would wait to see whether the PNP appealed the court’s judgment, and that he hoped matters would be brought to a swift and amicable conclusion. There has been no appeal by the PNP from the court’s judgment, but an invitation to the PNP’s lawyers to hand over the keys to Progress House voluntarily was declined. In the circumstances, we were obliged to peacefully re-take possession of the land. Crown land is this country’s most valuable asset, and it is important that it is held lawfully and properly for the benefit of all the people.”

She continued: “TCIG will now consider ways to maximise the revenue from the land for the benefit of the people of the TCI. As the attorney general has made clear, TCIG remains open to negotiating a lease to the PNP on sensible commercial terms if they still have an interest in occupying the building and the PNP are prepared to make an offer which reflects the commercial value of the land.”

In July, the TCI Supreme Court ruled in the government’s favour, giving judgment against the PNP in relation to an application by the attorney general to recover the land on which the party’s headquarters building had been constructed.

The court, dismissing the PNP’s argument that it was entitled to the parcel in question, held that “The only possible conclusion is that the beneficial and legal interest in the land was always and remains in the Crown”.

Judge Ramsey Hale, giving the court’s judgment, rejected the evidence of Floyd Hall, former deputy leader of the PNP and deputy premier of the PNP government in 2006/7. Hall was the primary witness in support of the PNP’s defence to the TCI government’s claim for the land. Hall gave evidence that he mistakenly believed that the PNP had a lease of the land (paragraphs 10 and 12 of the Judgment). The judge rejected Hall’s evidence.

Ramsey Hale said:

“…it is impossible to accept that Mr Hall, an experienced accountant and a leader of the Party, and the man responsible for preparing the Party’s accounts, was unaware that no rent had been paid in respect of the Land. He would have known from the fact that no rent had been paid that no Conditional Purchase Lease (CPL) had been granted. His evidence that he believed, because planning permission had been granted, that the PNP had a lease the execution of which Arlington Musgrove somehow co-ordinated and for which Musgrove, as a card carrying member of the Party, had elected to pay, frankly strains the credulity of this Court and I reject it.”

The judge went on to conclude (paragraph 34): “…in my judgment, the only inference to be drawn from the evidence is that Mr Hall and the PNP knew that no lease had been agreed, executed or granted by the Governor and that it had no title to the land.”

In other findings in the case, the judge also determined that the PNP, as an unincorporated association, has no legal personality and cannot sue or be sued. She therefore determined that the claims for damages could not be pursued against the PNP as a body, or Trevor Cooke, the chairman of the PNP, since it had not been shown that he personally was a trespasser, nor was he deemed by the court to be legally representative of all the PNP members.

The outcome of the case was therefore that the Crown is entitled to parcel 60602/79 including the PNP headquarters, but it is not entitled to pursue its claim for damages against the PNP (because it does not legally exist according to the Court) or against Cooke (because he has not personally been shown to be a trespasser). The Crown would be entitled to claim damages for trespass against any individual PNP member or other person whom it could prove had been trespassing on the land.

Premier Rufus Ewing, the leader of the PNP, confirmed that he and Cabinet ministers were advised by Braithwaite of the action taken during a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday morning.

“I am extremely disappointed in the actions taken by the Attorney General’s Chambers, and we as the Progressive National Party are still very much in active discussions with Edwards Wildman Palmer, of the civil recovery team, with regards to negotiations of a settlement and just three weeks ago made an offer in this regard. While we have received acknowledgment of receipt of our offer, we have not received a counter offer and we, therefore, are surprised and disappointed that a decision was taken to have the locks on Progressive House changed while negotiations are ongoing and while we are still expecting a counter proposal,” Ewing said.

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