The argument for having an inquiry
Last Friday, Parliament approved an historic motion calling on the Governor to establish a Commission of Inquiry into the historic theft and dispossession of land from vulnerable Bermudians during the latter half of the last century. We now have an opportunity to commence a process that could bring closure and a sense of justice to scores, if not hundreds, of Bermudian families by correcting some of the wrongs of the bad old days when justice was a fleeting illusion for many and where the rich, powerful and connected acted with impunity. The villains in these actions were oftentimes lawyers, bankers, real estate agents and politicians; the victims were at times the poor and marginalised, but not always. What the victims shared, though, was an inability to secure a just outcome.
One could be forgiven for concluding that claims of property theft and land dispossession were simply “urban legends” — stories that circulate the island, a part of folklore if you will, but with no demonstration of any truth behind them. Such a conclusion would be because no case of any such claim has been successfully brought before the courts. It is, however, precisely this lack of adjudication before the courts for most of these claims that requires explanation.
Lawyers, bankers and real estate agents worked together to deprive unsuspecting land owners of their property through either a series of sham operations camouflaged as legitimate transactions or flagrant violations of the law knowing there were minimal chances of being held to account. And there were politicians involved: a significant number of land grabs have their fingerprints and their signatures on paperwork marked for posterity
Even though the OBA attempted unsuccessfully to minimise the motion into a “take note” motion, each of their members who spoke, along with the PLP, indicated they knew of cases that this motion speaks to.
One major issue involves the 500 acres in Tucker's Town obtained compulsorily under the Bermuda Development Company Act 1920. While Parliament approved this purchase it required that any subsequent sale of this property be approved by Parliament so that the original owners might be given the first right of refusal. This was based on the principle articulated by the parliamentary member M Wainwright at the time: “It is a question of Bermuda for Bermudians.” That subsequent sales of Tucker's Town property were conducted illegally was raised in a confidential letter to the Mid-Ocean Club in October 1954 by the Colonial Secretary:
“Former residents of the Tucker's Town Area were forced to sell their properties and had to seek other homes in the Colony. There have recently been several sales of property in this area to Bermudians and it is doubtful whether this conforms to the original purposes for which the land was compulsorily acquired. Your Executive Committee will appreciate that if there is any change of policy the persons who were forced to sell their properties may well have genuine grounds for complaint.”
This demands closer scrutiny and adjudication.
Another case illustrative of the land theft problem is a long and convoluted matter that involves seven acres of land in Somerset, a depressed alcoholic land owner and a conspiracy by realtors, a prominent law firm and a bank. Mister X owned property that he undertook never to sell, but to pass on to his family members. During the 1950s his will was drawn up by this law firm, which handled all his legal matters. The Bank was his executor. In 1969 there was an alleged sale of Mister X's property to a real estate agent, sanctioned by the law firm. There was an immediate subsequent sale by this real estate agent to a major real estate company. This real estate company subsequently engaged in 10 conveyances on the same day involving the managing director of the company as the one party common to all transactions. This was a blatant attempt at generating a clear title for stolen property. Not one of these conveyances was actually recorded legally. In a report on this issue prepared by a firm specialising in property matters the conclusion reached was, “there is no record in the Registry in the form of a recital which sets out how this real property came into the possession of the Grantor.”
On the death of Mr X, the title deeds were transferred to the Bank, as Executors. Nevertheless the law firm informed the beneficiaries that Mr X had no real property. The Executors also told the beneficiaries there was no real property, even though the title deeds were later given to the beneficiaries by the bank. The case is highly suggestive of a major law firm involved in the forging of signatures and mortgage documents; of real estate agents blatantly fabricating documents to demonstrate title to property which was the result of illegal activity; and of a bank, as executor, complicit in the concealment of this illegal practice to the detriment of the beneficiaries.
The scale of this practice of depriving people of their land demands closer and independent scrutiny. The Commission needs to be led by an individual who has a sound legal foundation with knowledge about human rights, property issues, and no connection whatsoever to the legal, banking or real estate community in Bermuda. The Commission would take evidence and testimonies from individuals who come forward but can also summon people where necessary. These proceedings would ideally take place in the public. The Commission will also be able to assess the merit of cases on the basis of facts presented and not be constrained by statute of limitation issues, which has often been used to quash actions by marginalised peoples.
The call for this Commission was never meant to be a divisive party issue, as Members of Parliament all accepted that there was substantial injustice around these issues. Those members who voted in favour of this motion helped push this island further along the road to a more just society.