State told after seeking four more months for defence: 'This happens too often'
A HIGH COURT judge has admonished the State, yet again, for seeking a five-month extension to file a defence in a $12.1 million claim for payment.
The claim is being made by a company which supplied heavy equipment, and vehicles, and provided warehousing services for the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management (ODPM) for over a decade.
On Wednesday, Justice Frank Seepersad said while he had no difficulty in granting the request, it was happening far too often.
“In the last eight months to a year, almost every single matter on my docket that involves the State has resulted in numerous applications for extensions.”
He said lawyers for the State have advanced a plethora of reasons to explain the delay, including a shortage of attorneys in the civil law department; the sheer number of matters those in the department had to handle; and an inability to get instructions from state agencies. The latter, he admitted, was out of the control of the lawyers for the State.
In the case before him, filed by Achievor Enterprises Ltd against the Attorney General, Seepersad said the claim covered a substantial period, 2022-2021, and the pleadings referred to continuous engagement between the parties that culminated with a pre-action protocol letter in 2022.
“Why, then, is it taking so long in terms of retrieval of the relevant information? It doesn't rest well with the court.”
He said since the ODPM fell under the Ministry of National Security, which receives the “lion’s share” of the national budget, it was “unfathomable” that it was taking months to verify the contractural engagements with the company.
“We are operating with a lack of proper accounting.”
In granting the extension to May 1, as sought by attorney Terrence Bharath, representing the AG, Seepersad said the court had to take a position because of the “unacceptable frequency” of requests for extensions.
He granted an “unless order,” making it clear that if the State did not file its defence by May 1, the claim will proceed as undefended.
“The State must ensure that matters are dealt with urgently,” he said, adding, “Agencies of state cannot disregard their accountability systems when engaging the use of taxpayers' funds.”
Earlier, Bharath explained that the ministry’s permanent secretary had to sign off on the documents and assured the matter was being “worked on assiduously.”
He said there were hundreds of pages of invoices which he had to go through meticulously to ensure accuracy in the accounting, then had to make a decision on the matter, since he would not “litigate a matter that cannot be litigated in court.”
For his part, attorney Kelvin Ramkissoon, who represents Achievor, said he echoed the court’s sentiments and will not oppose the application for the extension. But he asked forthe State to be given a shorter period, to April 17, as his client was now “impoverished because of the ministry.”
“It is untenable that after eight months, they are unable to give a statement of account.”
In its claim, Achievor said it supplied heavy equipment, vehicles and warehouse management services to the ODPM from 2011-2021 .
In January 2022, the ministry terminated the warehouse services arrangement and said it was liaising with the Ministry of Finance to identify the funds to settle all outstanding sums.
The company’s claims featured pages of the various invoices and the amount it says it is owed, accusing the State of unjustly enriching itself, having received the benefit of goods and services while not paying for them.
Also appearing for the company are Rajiv Sumair and Akshay Boodram. Raquel Le Blanc, Laura Persad and Murvani Ojah-Maharaj appear with Bharath for the AG.
"State told after seeking four more months for defence: ‘This happens too often’"