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Editorial – Sunday Dec. 8th. 2019

Editorial – Sunday Dec. 8th. 2019
December 07
15:06 2019

The Caribbean Court of Justice has just jolted the justice system of Trinidad and Tobago by ruling that a land-owner cannot now recover legal rights to his land because he allowed a squatter to occupy this land for more than 12 years.

The CCJ over-ruled both the High Court of Trinidad and Tobago and the Appellate Court of the twin islands in ruling that 12 years of uninterrupted occupancy on the land gave the squatter a legal right which was stronger than the owner’s right. The ruling has shaken up the Trinidad and Tobago legal establishment, and will no doubt be regarded in the Caribbean as a benchmark pronouncement. Because the CCJ is the highest legal authority of the Caricom region, it’s ruling is final and cannot be appealed.

Trinidad law recognizes the validity of prolonged squatting. The country’s Title by Registration Act obliges squatters to apply for ownership papers to make their squatting legal. Both the High Court and the Court of Appeal agreed that such an application is necessary. Since the squatter did not comply with the Law, they ruled that he should forfeit his squatter’s right. But the CCJ ruled that the squatter is not obliged to do anything at all. His occupancy of the land for twelve years was enough to give him full title.

Squatting is an old practice in Belize, and if a landowner is not alert, he can lose his property. This is especially true of government land or land owned by a municipal authority. The best known example of squatting in Belize occurred when the Government of Belize opened up Faber’s Road Extension linking southside Belize with Chetumal Street via a road and a bridge. As soon as it became known that the land was being cleared for a road, men and women began to stake out a claim for themselves. When they were removed from the road frontage, they simply went deeper into the mangrove swamp and set up their little shacks which later came to be known as Gungulung.

Gungulung remains with us today as an oasis of poverty and crime amid an otherwise affluent extension of Belize City. The Government in general and the Minister of Housing in particular missed the opportunity to provide an orderly way for poor people to acquire land for housing. Some new land will become available soon as the new Link Road connecting the Western Highway with the Airport Road nears completion. Hopefully the Government of Belize will have learned from its experience with Faber’s Road Extension and will go about its land distribution in a more enlightened way.

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