Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi did not mince words yesterday.
He reprimanded the Judges of the Land and Titles Court over their refusal to appear before a Parliament-ordered Commission of Inquiry.
“They were afraid, they were embarrassed to be questioned about their reckless handling of matters pertaining to the people of this nation,” Tuilaepa said.
“They knowingly handled cases which they knew very well were matters of conflicts of interest because of their close connections to the parties involved.”
He added that “some” of the Judges are “unqualified, dishonest, reckless and abusive of our people.” Such people give the Judiciary a bad name and “all of us who are called leaders of this country.”
Tuilaepa made the comments during a Ministerial statement in their first session of 2017, revealing that all the Land and Title Judges positions will be advertised once the report is passed.
The Prime Minister also moved a motion for the report by the Commission of Inquiry tasked to review the performance of the Land and Titles Court Judges as well as the response from Land and Titles to be discussed in Parliament.
But the Prime Minister also used the opportunity to condemn the decision by Chief Justice and Acting President of L.T.C in 2016, His Honour Patu Tiava’asu’e Falefatu Patu, to oppose the Inquiry.
In a letter dated 5 July 2016, Chief Justice Patu not only expressed his objection, he also informed the Commission that no Judge of the Land and Titles Court would appear before the Panel.
The former President of the Land and Titles Court, Tuala Tagaloa Kerselake, also refused to appear before the Panel, despite being asked three times through official letters from the Commission.
Tuilaepa said their refusal is “a contempt of the dignity of Parliament” and he called on the Speaker of Parliament for the matter to be dealt with immediately.
He strongly rejected calls from other Parliamentarians to “forgive” the Judges.
“I don’t need to tell you Mr. Speaker and the Chairmen of Parliament Committees that the power is in your hands to summon anyone required by any Committee of Parliament,” Tuilaepa said.
“That is Parliamentary procedure. Even I as the leader of the government and Cabinet Ministers always respond when we are called by a Committee. We come, we wait outside the meeting room until the Committee calls us in.”
Tuilaepa said they do this because they respect the authority vested in each organ of democratic Samoa.
“These are guidelines that all leaders should respect and adhere to,” he said.
“Mr. Speaker, I don’t mean to tell you what to do but I strongly urge you not to allow anything foolish like this in the future."
“The appointed Committee has the authority of the Parliament of Samoa. This is the highest assembly of Samoa, there is no other before it or after it."
“I’m not saying this out of high-mindedness but if there is an assembly that should be obeyed by a person, it is this one. That is why it is called the Fono Aoao Faitulafono a Samoa (The Legislative Assembly of Samoa)."
“So for anyone to reject the call to appear before this Assembly is a serious offense. It is contempt of the dignity of this Parliament, which means it should be dealt with immediately.”
Tuilaepa downplayed suggestions that the government is interfering with the work of the Judiciary. Referring to his Ministerial statement in June 2016 when the motion was passed to set up the Inquiry, Tuilaepa said he highlighted the importance of the separation of powers between the Judiciary, Executive and the Government.
At the time, the question of whether one of these bodies is more superior was raised.
“There is no such thing,” he said, adding that all these bodies are like a woven basket.
“Opportunities to share are very important when one part of body sees that the other is falling because we are not angels. There are times when our decisions are influenced by our human feelings,” Tuilaepa said.
In his statement, Tuilaepa confirmed that Parliament has received an official response from the Judiciary.
“If you look at the report, there are many useful recommendations for the work of L.T.C. If you see the response from the Court, there are many good issues they have also highlighted. This is why we refer to this work as a women basket. If goes in line with the adage that we can catch more seafood when we have more torches."
“This is why the government needed to raise this matter. There would have been no refuge for our people if we did not initiate this Inquiry. The Court would not have done anything about the numerous complaints from people.”
Needless to say, the Prime Minister said the Inquiry has been extremely useful.
“For the Judges of the Land and Titles, it has made them aware about the grievances of our people and to know that they are not gods but rather they are servants appointed to serve Samoa with honesty and show God’s righteousness in their judgments."
“The truth is it’s not all the judges that are giving the Land Titles Court a bad name. There is a minority giving the Court a bad name. They should be sacked."
“We can never dry the tears of our people if these people who are unqualified, dishonest, reckless and abusive of our people, giving the Court a bad name, and all of us who are called leaders of this country, remain there.”
Tuilaepa then announced that once Parliament passes the report from the Commission, applications for all positions of Land and Titles Court Judges will be opened.
“We want to ensure that only qualified and honest judges are appointed to be Judges of the Land and Titles Court. We will also set a Commission for the Land and Titles Court to monitor and review their performance on a periodic basis."
“If good judges are appointed, the decisions will be good too. If the Judges appointed are honest, their decisions will also be righteous.”
The Ministerial statement from Tuilaepa was widely supported by Members of Parliament appointed to speak about the report including the Chairman of the Inquiry, Lopao’o Natanielu Mua, Tautua Samoa MP, Aeau Peniamina Leavai, Minister of Justice and Courts Administration, Faaolesa Katopau Ainuu, Tafua Maluelue Tafua, Gatoloaifaana Amataga Alesana-Gidlow and Fa’asootauloa Pati Taulapapa.
The Inquiry was ordered by Prime Minister Tuilaepa last year to look into the performance of L.T.C. judges, on the back of a growing number of grievances about the performance of the Land and Titles Court.
Chaired by Lopao’o, Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Nafoitoa Talaimanu Keti was the Vice Chairman with members including Lauofo Fonotoe Meredith, Ali’imalemanu Alofa Tuuau, Ili Setefano Ta’ateo, Faaulusau Rosa Stowers and Faumuina Wayne Fong.
In its report, the Commission makes 30 recommendations on ways to address concerns raised by members of the public, especially in relation to ways to speed up the process.
The Inquiry recommends a restructure of the Land and Titles Court. As part of this, Parliament has been urged to appoint two Vice Presidents of the Land and Titles Court to help the President.
The Commission is also calling for a legal time frame on decisions.
For instance, a verbal ruling on all Court matters must be delivered within three days when the hearing ends. Written rulings are urged to be delivered within seven days from the end of a matter.
The Inquiry also recommended ways to address questions of bias and abuse. This includes a recommendation to stop the practice of Judges accepting food, gifts and other material things from parties during inspection visits.
Parliament was also asked to look into Rules and Procedures for all Judges to follow in the conduct of their duties.
In relation to the question of adjournments, the Inquiry recommends a period of no more than 6 months if a matter must be adjourned.
When it comes to parties in a hearing, the Inquiry recommends that there must be at least three leaders at one time so a hearing is not delayed when one of them doesn’t turn up.