By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
ATTORNEY General Carl Bethel says squatters may be entitled to compensation when the government compulsorily acquires land that once housed Abaco’s shanty towns if they satisfy the law’s stringent requirements.
He spoke to The Tribune yesterday after Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis announced on Wednesday that he has instructed him to acquire The Mudd, Pigeon Peas, Sand Banks and other areas as part of a move to prevent rebuilding in the low-lying areas.
Meanwhile, Dr Minnis continued his tough talk on immigration yesterday, telling The Tribune his government will come after companies and private citizens who hire undocumented migrants. He said they will feel the full brunt of the law if discovered.
“Under the law, all legal owners and by implication any squatter who has lived continuously in undisturbed possession for the required periods of time will have to be paid, once they can prove their form of title, whether by documentary title or by operation of the Limitation of Actions periods,” Mr Bethel said.
“They must prove exclusive occupation for the limitation period. Now the legal issue is this: a right not to be evicted from a piece of land by legal action by the ‘true owner’ does not amount to a legal title to that land. It is merely a right not to be evicted by the true owner. The legal question the groups like Respect Our Homes may have to take to court is this precise question. If a squatter is no longer in physical occupation of the land, he has no right per se to retain it. Another squatter can enter and continue the occupation. The owner could enter. The question for a court of equity and justice would be whether the ‘possession’ could be deemed to continue in actual possession in law, because the squatter (who had gained the right not to be evicted under the Limitation Act) was evicted by a storm surge, and did not abandon the land of his own volition. These are complex issues.”
A Rights Bahamas official said yesterday thousands of people could qualify for compensation because of their squatter’s rights. A formal statement from the group is expected today.
After the government gazettes its intention to acquire the land, an assessor will be appointed to appraise them, their valuation dictating compensation.
“This is undivided land so it may be necessary to divide a large sum amongst multiple persons who can prove title to parts,” Mr Bethel said, noting that acquisition can take a long time. “It depends on how quickly people can prove title and in some acquisitions there have been legal actions challenging the acquisition, which can lead to great deals sometimes,” he said.
Mr Bethel noted the law on compulsory acquisition makes no references to nationality in its application, saying: “All persons in The Bahamas enjoy the benefits accorded by the constitution.”
Establishing title to the lands could prove complicated. The Mudd, according to many, was built on Crown Land, but ownership of the Pigeon Peas is a more contentious matter.
Marsh Harbour resident Ricky Albury has said he owns the land but former Central and South Abaco MP Edison Key said yesterday that this is not the case. The land, Mr Key said, was granted to an ancestor many years ago.
“He was awarded 220 acres for his heroism during a war and the Crown gave him title to that,” Mr Key said. “He died without a will, leaving quite a few sons and nobody ever could figure out who was the eldest son so people just squatted on the land.”
For his part, Mr Bethel said: “In a similar case, where land was needed for the Black Point Exuma airport, former Prime Minister Lynden Pindling took the land and put the money in the bank, telling them that once the question was resolved, the owner would collect.”
On Wednesday, Dr Minnis told undocumented migrants to leave the country or be forced out.
Yesterday he reminded businesses and residents not to hire undocumented workers or face prosecution.
“I am sending a warning to all companies and citizen who are hiring - if you hire any illegal (worker) we will come after you and there are severe consequences - we will not tolerate any hiring of any illegal (worker),” Dr Minnis said.
Asked what penalties such companies will face, the nation’s leader said: “That company will be severely dealt with, the law spells it out, we will not bend with the law.”
He reiterated an advisory from the Department of Immigration, saying under the law applications for new work permits must be made from the applicants home country – not The Bahamas.