The owners of a sawmill in Rio Claro have won their lawsuit against the Conservator of Forests over a decision to temporarily suspend their licence and seize a quantity of lumber, which was suspected of being stolen.
Delivering a written judgement yesterday, High Court Judge Margaret Mohammed ruled that the brief suspension of Vishnudath and Omawatee Kamchand’s sawmill licence was unlawful and of no legal effect.
According to their court filings, which were obtained by Guardian Media, the couple claimed that in late June last year, a forest ranger visited their business, First Class Sawmill and Lumber Yard Limited, and requested an inspection.
Vishnudath attempted to reschedule the inspection for the following day but the officer returned with two police officers and entered the property.
The couple claimed that the ranger told them that 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 apple matte, cedar, and mahogany that was stored on the compound and seized the sawmill’s records.
When the ranger returned with colleagues the following day, Vishnudath took them to an area of his 22-acre estate where he claimed the lumber was harvested.
The ranger allegedly challenged his claims and after a telephone conversation with his superiors, informed the Kamchands that their license would be temporarily suspended.
Over a two-week period, the rangers returned to the property and seized the lumber.
In July, last year, Vishnudath was issued with a summons to appear in court to answer a charge under the Sawmill Act for failing to keep proper records.
He was also informed that the oral suspension had been rescinded and that he would have to make an application to have the lumber returned, which was done and was still pending at the time of Justice Mohammed’s decision in the case.
In her judgement, Justice Mohammed questioned the decision to suspend as she noted that while the Sawmills Act states that the Conservator of Forests decides whether to suspend a licence or not, it was the Assistant Conservator of Forests, who signed the couple’s correspondence.
She noted that none of the conservator’s witnesses testified that he had delegated his discretion to them as such was not permitted under the legislation.
Justice Mohammed also questioned why no evidence was presented over the reasons for the short-lived decision to suspend.
“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,” Justice Mohammed said.
She also stated that while the forestry officers questioned the couple, they were not given an opportunity to respond to the allegations as the officers were not the officeholder, who certified the decision to suspend.
Justice Mohammed also had to consider whether the lumber was properly detained in accordance with the Forests Act.
While she noted that information on the seizure was laid before a magistrate as required, Justice Mohammed stated that the officers also had to have a reasonable belief that the couple had committed an offence under the Forest Act and not the Sawmills Act, as in the case.
Mohammed ordered the release of the lumber within 21 days.
As a secondary issue in the case, the couple was seeking over $700,000 in compensation for the losses they allegedly incurred.
Justice Mohammed declined to award such compensation as she pointed to the fact that the purchase orders, submitted to buttress their claim, were issued after their licence had already been restored.