Government could face legal action over its refusal to officially register some 200 beach access paths.
A judge has ruled that the Concerned Citizens Group should be granted legal aid to pursue their appeal against the decision of the Registrar of Lands.
Justice Alastair Malcolm said the appeal had a reasonable possibility of success and involved the consideration of a substantial question of law and was therefore a candidate for financial support. Initially, that support is limited to funding an assessment of the “merits of the case” by an attorney.
As far back as 2003, the group filed 500 affidavits from members of the public in an effort to officially register the paths.
Members of the group say they have been in constant dialog with successive governments ever since. But it was not until last year, when a series of beach access disputes put the issue back in the spotlight, that they received a response.
In a letter to the group, Registrar of Lands Sophia Williams said the law did not enable her to register the accesses unless ordered to do by a court, following a dispute.
She acknowledged that such access paths did acquire legal status under the Prescription Law after 20 years of use, but indicated that this could not be officially recorded on the lands register without a court order confirming the “existence, nature and extent” of the easement.
Three members of the Concerned Citizens Group, Alice Mae Coe, Ezmie Smith and Annie Multon, sought to challenge that decision. But they were denied legal aid for an appeal.
They believe that the law permits government to register the paths on the basis of the evidence they have provided.
Now, a judge has ruled that they should be granted legal aid to push the case.
Justice Malcolm said a 2003 memo from former crown counsel Stephen Hall Jones, cited by the applicants, suggested the approach they had taken in requesting registration of public rights of way was valid. He said this had persuaded him the action had a chance of success and should be considered for legal aid. He also ruled that the three women should be assessed for contributions.
Stacey Parke, director of Legal Aid, told the Compass, “Once the applicants are assessed on their means, the legal aid certificate will be issued for their attorney to provide our office with an opinion on the merits of the case. Depending on the merits of the opinion, further legal aid funding maybe granted for the substantive action.”
Ezmie Smith, one of the concerned citizens, said she was pleased with the decision, but felt the cost of the action should come entirely from legal aid.
“I have nothing personally to gain in protecting beach access. It is for the public at large,” she said. She acknowledged government had begun to make progress on the issue of beach access in recent years, passing new laws and collecting information on beach access paths around the island.
But, she said, government had always had the power and the information, from the group’s affidavit, to register and protect the 200 beach access paths they had identified.