On Monday, Ernest Staine, a senior member of Belize’s legal fraternity, came to the Supreme Court in an unfamiliar role. He is the defendant in a lawsuit filed on behalf of Forward in Faith Ministries and Rita McField, on whose behalf he had handled sale of a plot of land on Douglas Jones Street, Belize City, for the purposes of building a church.
The total sale was for a quarter of a million dollars, the money held in an escrow account by Mr Staine. However, Mrs. McField as the seller received just $20,000 and the remaining $230,000 would be paid to her as seller on the completion of the land title in the middle of last year, but that came and went without payment.
Ernest Staine missed several deadlines for payment as ordered by the court up to the end of January, and faced committal to prison, as well as charges for contempt of court for failing to disclose banking details relevant to the transaction.
On Tuesday Justice Courtney Abel vacated the contempt order after Ernest Staine, through Senior Counsel Denys Barrow and his niece Naima, filed an affidavit complying with the original court order of October 30, 2014. However, additional details were asked for and these are to be received by March 3 in the case of bank statements for various accounts owned by Staine, and March 17 for supporting documents for assets of Staine’s including title to land.
According to Denys Barrow, his client does not dispute that he owes the money; it is a matter of settling the issue, which has become so serious it attracted the attention of the Bar Association, which organized to assist a colleague, who had become incapable of properly representing himself in the case.
“ It is a very grave and serious matter that we are dealing with. The Bar Association takes it very seriously. Mr. Staine takes it very seriously, and we hope that an outcome will emerge which will be broadly satisfactory and will be the right outcome.
There is a judgment which has been pronounced against Mr. Staine, and the principal issue now is how to go about enforcing that judgment. So that is a matter that the Court is dealing with. Mr. Staine is trying his best, or will try his best, to assist in that process to allow the money to be collected, to have the money paid.”
Ernest Staine himself declined comment.
President of the Bar Association and Senior Counsel, Eamon Courtenay, outlined the parameters under which the Bar got involved in the case.
“I had received a number of calls from members of the Bar who had expressed their concern for the welfare of Mr. Staine who was representing himself, which is never advisable. So I contacted colleagues and people agreed to come forward to provide assistance to him. I want to make it very clear that that relates only to the contempt matter.
That is a very serious matter and it appeared to us, based on what we were able to gather, that Mr. Staine was in need of legal representation.
With respect to the judgment against Mr. Staine, as Mr. Barrow has indicated, I think steps are being taken to ensure that the judgment is paid at the earliest possible time, and I do not wish to make any comment on the obligation of Mr. Staine to honor that judgment, which I think is very clear.
From the Bar’s perspective, I can say that this is a matter of serious concern, and the fact that Mr. Staine was brought to Court at the risk of going to prison today, we wanted to signal to the Court and indeed to the public that the Bar Association is very concerned about this kind of order being made against a member of the profession.”
Eamon Courtenay would not directly comment on any discipline meted out by the Association, noting that Mr Staine’s conduct was the subject of a complaint before the General Legal Council, which as previously pointed out has not met for over a year now.
Meanwhile for the clients, represented by Julie-Ann Ellis-Bradley, their wait for their monies continues. Already she noted discrepancies in the affidavit provided by Ernest Staine that says the original money handed to him is no longer there and that, she says, complicates the issue greatly.
“This information was not made available until Friday, and then further information on Monday. The information unfortunately shows that though the monies were wired to Mr. Staine’s account, none of those account have more than $20,000 in it.
We are speaking about a claim for a sum of $230,000 which was the reaming sums that Mr. Staine held, and when you add all the monies indicated in those accounts, there is perhaps more than $30,000 spread across all accounts.
It is very unfortunate. It is against the code of ethics that attorneys are required to abide by, and the challenge is that though there are processes available for enforcement of claims such as this and those processes we will have to look to in order to start to recover the sums.
Prior to today, it was not clear whether or not the sums were there to be paid over, but it is evidently clear today the sums are not in those accounts at least. We have had no opportunity to check or to verify that that information is complete, and the court has further ordered that Mr. Staine is now required to not only say in an affidavit what he has, but give supporting documentation in the form of bank accounts and papers proving ownership of property.”
The case returns to court on March 30 in the afternoon, at 3:00 p.m.