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Can Foreign Judgments be Enforced in Belize Without a Mutual Enforcement of Judgments Act?

Author: Steven Towes

In the absence of an act of the legislature of Belize, foreign judgments may not be directly enforced by a court in Belize. They can, however, be indirectly enforced by the operation of the common law rule of enforcement by an action on the judgment. There are several exceptions to the common-law rule, as well as an exception regarding trusts formed under the of Belize.

The enforcement of foreign judgments pursuant to the common law

In order for a foreign judgment to be enforced in a Belize court, it must meet the criteria summarized in Halsbums Laws of England (4th edition), Vol. 8, Paragraph 725, which states:

Subject to three exceptions, a judgment in personam of a foreign court of competent jurisdiction which is final and conclusive on the merits is conclusive between the parties and privies as to any issue upon which it adjudicates. It is not impeachable or examinable on the merits, whether for error of fact or of law [emphasis added]

The exceptions referred to in the preceding passage are as follows:

  1. That the judgment was obtained by fraud
  2. That the judgment’s enforcement would be contrary to public policy
  3. That the judgment was obtained in proceedings which were contrary to natural justice

In every case, once a claimant has established that the foreign judgment is final and conclusive on the merits, the burden shifts to the defendant to demonstrate that the case falls under one of the three exceptions noted above. (See Godard v Gray [1870] LR 6 QB 139 at 149-150 and Ralli v Anguilia (1917) 15 SSLR 33 [Singapore])

The mechanism for enforcement of a foreign judgment is an action on the judgment itself. Having proved a final and conclusive judgment on the merits of the case at hand, a claimant is entitled to expect a Belize court to impose “a duty or obligation on the defendant to pay the sum for which the judgment is given [and] which the courts of this country are bound to enforce.” (Schibbsby v Westenholz (1870) LR 6 QB 155)

Whether a judgment was obtained by fraud

A foreign judgment is impeachable, meaning it will not be recognized or enforced in Belize pursuant to common law rules, if it was obtained by fraud. This can mean fraud on the part of the party seeking to enforce the judgment in Belize or fraud on the part of the court who issued the judgment. (See Dicey & Moms, The Conflict of Laws, 11th ed. (1987), Rule 44)

Fraud can be raised by a defendant seeking to prevent the recognition or enforcement of a foreign judgment for the first time in a Belize court, even if fraud was not raised as an issue in fre original, foreign proceedings. (See Jet Holdings v Patel [19901 IQB 335.)

In Prophecy Group v Seabreeze, Claim No. 185 of 2001 in the Supreme Court of Belize, the defendant Seabreeze alleged t•tat the American judgment         plaintiff Prophecy Group sought to enforce in Belize was tainted by fraud. Seabreeze had not participated in the proceedings in the United States. Instead, Prophecy Group had obtained default judgment against tie defendant in that jurisdiction. In Belize, Seabreeze argued that the default judgment was obtained by fraud on the part of Prophecy Group.

In that case, Justice Muria pointed out that, in order for the defendant to prevail on this point, the common law required that they present new evidence of a decisive character tiat established the plainiff had deliberately misled the foreign court with the intention to deceive. Note that proof of fraud would require a defendant to demonstrate a prima facie case tiat       plaintiff had both misled the previous tribunal and done so with the intent to deceive. As Justice Muria indicated, this would be a “difficult task.”

Whether the enforcement of a judgment would be contrary to public policy

Any judgment that would run counter to the public policy of Belize would not be recognized or enforced by a Belize court. This is a vague and case-specific category. But, generally, judgments that strike at the heart of fundamental principles of justice or the rule of law would not be recognized or enforced.

One can imagine cases in which a concern under this exception might arise. If, for example, a judgment was entered in a foreign court tnat included damages for blasphemy or that contained damages for a defendant failing to perform an illegal act, a Belize court could refrain from recognizing or enforcing an obligation to pay against that defendant on public policy grounds.

A determination under public policy grounds often overlaps with a Belize courts analysis under the principles of natural justice (discussed in the following section), insofar as the principles of natural justice are also important public policy considerations. In other words, a violation of the principles of natural justice could also entail that a judgment is unenforceable for reasons of public policy.

Whether a judgment was obtained contrary to principles of natural justice

In order for a foreign judgment to be enforced in Belize it must not be obtained contrary to the principles of substantial, or natural, justice. W•tat exacdy this means will depend on the nature of the case and the nature of the judgment a plaintiff is seeking to enforce.

The principle is laid out in Adams v Cape Industries PLC [19901 where the court states that:

“The notion of substantial justice must be govemed in a particular case by the nature of the proceedings under consideration…[BJoth our system and the federal system of the United States require, if there is no agreement between the parties, judicial assessment Tof damages]. “

Principles of natural justice require, at a minimum, that the defendant have been made aware of the proceedings against them and had a reasonable opportunity to participate in those proceedings.

Also, the principles of natural justice will be judged by the standards widely applicable in international law. For example, even if a foreign courts rules were followed to the letter, if those rules are “unjust,” according to intemational principles, the judgment will not be recognized or enforced in a Belize court

An interesting application of this exception arose in the previously mentioned case of Prophecy Group v Seabæeze and the appeal and cross-appeal Civil Appeal No. 4 of 2009 in the Court of Appeal of Belize.

In that case, the Supreme Court Justice refused to enforce the second default judgment entered by a Florida court against Seabreeze. The Leamed Justice found tnat the second default judgment contained an assessment of damages that amounted to nothing more than the plaintiffs estimate of the value of certain property owned by the defendant.

The appeal court overturned tiat finding, noting that the proceedings at issue were default proceedings in which the defendant took no part, despite having been given reasonable notice both of the proceedings and the ensuing judgment.

The appeal court also found that the defendant Seabreeze was estopped from arguing the issue of a breach of natural justice because they had previously tried, unsuccessfully, to argue the issue in Belize proceedings.

A quick note about trusts

If the assets of the defendant are held in a trust pursuant to the Trusts Act Chapter 202, the situation becomes more complicated. The trust regime in Belize is extraordinarily robust and can withstand the reach of creditors. Essentially, if a plaintiff wishes to enforce a foreign judgment against a defendant whose assets are located in Belize, they may wish to confirm that those assets are not held in a protective trust prior to embarking on a lengthy and expensive collection effort tlat may not be successful.

Final Thoughts

In sum, then, foreign judgments can be enforced, albeit indirectly, in Belize. The parw seeking to enforce the judgment must bring an action on the judgment. Assuming the judgment the plaintiff seeks to enforce is final and conclusive (ie. all relevant appeals and appeal periods have been exhausted) the defendant is given an opportunity to establish that the judgment falls under one of the three exceptions that will prevent a Belize court from enforcing the duties and obligations contained in the judgment.

To reiterate, those exceptions are:

  1. That the judgment was obtained by fraud
  2. That the judgment’s enforcement would be contrary to public policy
  3. That the judgment was obtained in proceedings which were contrary to natural justice

The onus is on the defendant to establish, on a balance of probabilities, that one of these exceptions applies. If one of them does, a Belize court will not enforce the judgment. If none of them apply, a Belize court is bound to enforce it.

The short answer to the question of whether foreign judgments are enforceable in a Belize court is “Yes, with some exceptions.” As is typical in the law, a party’s results in court will always depend heavily on the particular facts of their own case. The enforcement of foreign judgments are no exception.