The State has been ordered to pay compensation to a pair of siblings from south Trinidad, whose licences for their gas stations were suspended by former energy minister Kevin Ramnarine in 2012.
Delivering a 20-page judgment yesterday morning, five Law Lords of the United Kingdom-based Privy Council ruled that Ramnarine acted improperly and unlawfully when he suspended Prakash and Adesh Maharaj’s licences for gas stations in Fyzabad and King’s Wharf in San Fernando.
According to the evidence in the case, the siblings inherited the service stations from their father Sookdeo Batton Maharaj, and continued to pay the annual license fees after his death in 2007.
In mid-2010, Ramnarine announced that his ministry would no longer be issuing paper licenses as its technocrats were reviewing terms and conditions and procedures for the issuing and renewal of such. Operators were allowed to operate without the licenses provided they underwent annual inspections and paid renewal fees.
In late 2012, the Maharajs’ licenses were suspended as the ministry began investigating reports over faulty storage facilities, adulterated fuel, and fuel bunkering.
The brothers denied any wrongdoing and took legal action over the suspensions. They have never been prosecuted separately over the initial allegations.
The brothers won their case before High Court Judge Carol Gobin, but her decision was eventually overturned by the Court of Appeal, which stated that Ramnarine had the power to suspend under the Interpretation Act.
In its judgment, the Privy Council agreed with both Gobin and the Appeal Court that the brothers’ licenses continued de facto after the licensing scheme was initially stopped by Ramnarine.
It stated that the minister had no implied power to suspend based on the allegations as such sanctions should have been stipulated in the original paper licenses.
“Since the licence constitutes the basis of the licensee’s commercial activity, he needs clear notice from the licence itself or from the express terms of the Act of the circumstances in which his rights to carry out his commercial operations under the licence may be suspended or terminated,” Lord Philip Sales, who wrote the judgement, stated.
While Sales stated that the Petroleum Act has provisions for the “temporary discontinuation” of licenses, he noted that this was only to be applied by the President and in circumstances of repeated breaches and violations.
He also said that there are other laws that could be utilised in emergency situations.
In assessing the appropriate compensation for the siblings, Sales noted that they accepted that restoration of the licenses was not an option due to the length of time that had elapsed from the suspension to the final resolution of the case.
He did state that they were entitled to damages for breaches of their constitutional rights and for their loss of income.
However, Sales noted that the loss of income could only be calculated up until their licences were due to come up for renewal in late 2013 and 2014.
“Neither Adesh nor Prakash offered to pay the licence fee for any subsequent period, and hence could have no legitimate expectation to be provided with a licence beyond those respective periods,” Sales said.
Sales did not calculate the compensation owed to each and instead remitted the issue back to the High Court for assessment.
The brothers were represented by Peter Knox, QC, Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, SC, and Robert Strang. Thomas Roe, QC, represented the State.