Rio Claro sawmill owners win lawsuit over suspension of licence

Justice Margaret Mohammed. -
Justice Margaret Mohammed. -

The owners of a sawmill in Rio Claro have won their judicial review claim against a decision by the Conservator of Forests to temporarily suspend their sawmill licence and seize lumber which was suspected to be stolen.

On Wednesday, Justice Margaret Mohammed ruled in favour of Vishnudath and Omawatee Kamchand against the conservator in their challenge that he acted unfairly and unreasonably in suspending their licence and taking their lumber.

However, she did not award the damages they sought for the suspension of their licence and the forfeiture of their logs but ordered that the logs – approximately 300 of various species valued at $724,200.00 VAT exclusive – be returned to them.

The Kamchands own First Class Sawmill and Lumber Yard Ltd.

According to their lawsuit, in late June 2020 a forest ranger visited the sawmill and requested an inspection.

The ranger returned later that day with two police officers and entered the property although Vishnudath tried to reschedule the inspection for the following day.

The couple said they were told by the ranger he was investigating a report that they had teak logs that were improperly obtained.

After he found no teak logs during the search, the ranger questioned the legitimacy of appamate, cedar, and mahogany stored on the compound and seized the sawmill’s records.

The next day, the ranger returned and Vishnudath took him to an area of his 22-acre estate where he said the lumber was harvested.

Kamchand was later told his license would be temporarily suspended. Over a two-week period, the rangers returned to the property and seized the lumber.

In July 2020, Vishnudath was summoned to appear in court to answer a charge under the Sawmill Act for failing to keep proper records.

He was also told the suspension of his licence was rescinded but he would have to make an application to have the lumber returned. This was done but he has not received his lumber.

In their lawsuit, the couple contended that the temporary suspension was disproportionate in the circumstances

They argued that even if they were suspected of breaching the law, it was not proportionate to suspend the entire sawmill’s operation and should have been given an opportunity to make representation before their licence was suspended.

In her ruling delivered on Wednesday, Mohammed said the onus was on the conservator to put the matters he considered when he made the decision to suspend the Kamchands’ licence.

“In light of the defendant’s failure to put any such evidence before the court, I am entitled to conclude that he did not consider any matters before he made the decision to suspend the licence, and therefore he had no reasons for making that decision,” she said, as she ruled he did not act reasonably.

She also found that the conservator did not give the couple an opportunity to be heard before their license was suspended, nor were they treated fairly or proportionately.

Mohammed also ruled that the couple had a legitimate expectation, based on what was told to them by the conservator, that their licence would not be suspended.

In pointing out that the Kamchands were not charged for any offence under the Forests Act, but were charged with an offence under the Sawmills Act, she said because of this there was no reasonable justification for the decision to seize and detain the logs.

The couple was represented by attorneys Jagdeo Singh, Kiel Taklalsingh, Stefan Ramkissoon and Karina Singh.

Attorneys Monica Smith and Sara Muslim represented the conservator who was ordered to pay the couple’s costs.

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