Byron Buckley, Associate Editor
DUDLEY MAITLAND'S livelihood has been wrenched from him, and he believes he is the victim of an act of great injustice.
He says two trucks valued at $800,000, agricultural produce worth thousands of dollars, two commercial refrigerators, several cooking-gas cylinders for retail, and food items were seized from his St Elizabeth farm store by bailiffs acting on the order of the Black River Resident Magistrate's Court in September 2005. They impounded assets, except clothes and tools, to cover money the National Housing Trust (NHT) alleged Maitland had owed it.
"I am out of business because they took away my livelihood," a forlorn Maitland tells The Sunday Gleaner.
Statements from the National Housing Trust claim that Maitland owed $1,277,330.25 in unpaid self-employed contributions from 1999 to 2005, plus a 40 per cent penalty. The National Housing Trust Act requires employers to pay over three per cent of their earnings as contributions. In arriving at the value of Maitland's outstanding contributions, the NHT estimated his income for the six-year period based on his income tax returns for the years 1997 and 1998 that were filed with the tax authorities.
However, Maitland disagrees with the estimate made by the NHT. "I never owed the money that they levied me for, and I made no profits during those years (1999-2005)," he protests.
The farm-store operator provided The Sunday Gleaner with his income tax returns filed with the tax authorities showing that his business made losses - not profits - during the years for which the NHT was demanding contributions. The NHT's assessments for 1999 and 2001 are each more than twice the losses Maitland's farm store made for those years.
The NHT takes no blame for going the route of estimating Maitland's income, "as he failed to file the annual declarations for self-employed persons that are required to determine the self-employed contributions payable", explained the NHT's attorneys, Gentles & Willis. "It was ... Mr Maitland's duty to prove otherwise to the court in order that the court would have adjudicated in his favour," the attorneys advised the Office of the Public Defender in an April 2, 2007, letter.
The NHT has taken a total of 20 self-employed persons to court in order to recover unpaid contributions during the last five years. Half of these persons were from St Elizabeth.
The farm-store operator is bitter that the bailiff seized and hastily sold his property before he had received the summons. "I didn't know the case was in court," says Maitland. The situation worsened when his subsequent application to the court to set aside the previous judgement was dismissed in September 2006.
"I want to know why my trucks were sold without an auction. How did the vendors know they were for sale?" Maitland questions.
Unable to afford legal representation to further pursue the matter in court, Maitland turned to the Office of the Public Defender who, in turn, sought advice from the Attorney General's Office as to whether the bailiff had acted as an agent of the Crown. After eight months of delay, the Office of the Public Defender communicated the advice of the Attorney General's Office to Maitland. "… It is the National Housing Trust rather than you who is the victim of the bailiff's misconduct and it is, therefore, the responsibility of the National Housing Trust to seek to recover the outstanding sum from the defaulting bailiff," the Office of the Public Defender wrote in August of this year.
This is cold comfort for Maitland, whose distress is aggravated because of worrying that a friend who had allowed his house to be used as surety for a bank loan for the farm-store business, risks losing his property.
"They took away my trucks, and those were my tools to earn a livelihood," bemoans Maitland.
NHT's procedures to treat self-employed contributors in arrears
1. A self-employed contributor is sent a 14-day payment reminder letter advising of payment due and encouraging contact with the NHT to update his/her account.
2. If the contributor fails to respond to the payment reminder letter, a telephone contact is made provided telephone numbers are available.
3. If the contributor still has amounts outstanding and fails to pay, a 14-day arrears notice is sent advising of the outstanding contributions due, the period for which it is due, the applicable interest charges and the trust's intention to pursue legal action if satisfactory arrangements are not made to settle the arrears, or to make full payment.
4. Another telephone contact is made on or before the expiration of the 14-day notice to encourage payments or if appropriate, and, in some instances, an NHT officer visits the delinquent contributor.
5. If the contributor fails to pay after steps 1-4 are executed, the contributor is then sent a seven-day notice advising him/her of outstanding contributions, detailing the period for which the amount is due, the amount due, the applicable interest charges and the trust's intention to pursue legal action if either payments are not made or satisfactory arrangements are not in place to settle the arrears.
6. Another telephone contact is made on or before the expiration of the seven-day notice to encourage payments, or another visit if appropriate.
7. If the contributor fails to respond to the measures taken in steps 1-6, the matter may be referred for legal action.