A High Court judge has begun to manage the cases of over 2,300 former private sugar cane farmers who are claiming that they are still owed a total of $103 million under a compensation scheme for transitioning out of the sugar industry.
Justice James Aboud commenced the tedious process as scores of the cases came up for hearing before him at the Hall of Justice in Port-of-Spain yesterday.
During the hearing, Aboud suggested that the farmers’ cases be converted into a class action lawsuit, under which one of their cases would be determined with the result being binding on the others.
The group’s attorney Gerald Ramdeen agreed but pointed out that State attorneys had filed an application to strike out all the farmers’ claims, which was yet to be determined.
Ramdeen suggested that the application was doomed to fail as a similar challenge was raised in three other cases, in which the Court of Appeal upheld the claims from six farmers.
Deputy Solicitor General Neil Byam, who is leading the State’s legal team, said he would have to research Ramdeen’s claim as he was not familiar with the cases.
Both Ramdeen and Byam agreed to file the transcripts from the appeals for the issue to be resolved by Aboud at the next hearing on October 18.
The compensation being claimed by the farmers stems from the Government’s decision to close Caroni (1975) Limited’s operations in 2003.
As part of the plan, the Government struck an agreement with the European Union (EU), which was at the time the largest outlet for the company’s products and gave preferential tariffs.
Under the agreement, titled the National Adaptation Strategy, T&T and the EU were expected to partner to establish new industries for the company’s former employees and others affected by the shut down of the industry.
In 2015, the People’s Partnership administration agreed to make payments, totalling $130 million, to the private farmers to avoid going through with the agreement. The compensation to each farmer was calculated based on the tonnes of raw sugar cane it supplied to the company, two years prior to its closure.
The EU agreed and contributed $57 million.
Before demitting office in September 2015, the former government made $27 million in initial payments.
After the People’s National Movement (PNM) entered office, the Government sought to renegotiate the deal and reduce the remaining payments to $57.9 million.
Dewantie and Manzool Mohammed, Kaloutie and Mathura Bissessar, Sita Maharaj and Manohar Ramnarine were among the first to sue over the Government’s reneging on the deal and won their lawsuits, last year, after State attorneys failed to file defences to cases within their allotted time-frame.
The State appealed but the Court of Appeal agreed with three High Court judges that the State attorneys could not justify their request for an extension of time to file their defences.
The six former farmers were awarded a total of $450,000 in compensation.
The State is also being represented by Coreen Findley and Brent James while Umesh Maharaj and Dayadai Harripaul are appearing for the farmers.
Reporter: Derek Achong