Court rules that removal of Church Minister wrong

By Ilia L. Likou 04 April 2017, 12:00AM

The Court of Appeal has ruled in favour of a pastor of the E.F.K.S Church who took the Church’s Elders Committee to Court over their decision to remove him from a senior position of leadership.

Reverend Kerita Reupena, who is represented by lawyer Leulua’iali’i Olinda Woodroffe, was unsuccessful in his initial lawsuit. 

Hence the appeal which was heard last week by Justice Blanchard, Justice Panckhurst and Justice Tafaoimalo Leilani Tuala-Warren.

In their ruling, the Court of Appeal said the Elders Committee’s decision to remove Rev. Reupena from the role in Queensland was unlawful.

“We find that the Directors Committee did not conduct itself in accordance with the principles of natural justice,” the ruling reads. 

“It did not afford Rev. Reupena a fair hearing. At the crucial meeting on 11 March 2015 Rev. Reupena was not permitted to speak in his own defence before the decision to recommend his removal was made. 

“It is true that the Committee followed its usual procedure but that procedure is quite unsatisfactory and creates an unfairness that is not, in our view, remedied by affording the person whose conduct is under consideration an opportunity of speaking only after the decision (to remove) has already been made. 

“The Chief Justice recorded at [33] of his judgment: “The [appellant] was not present at the time of the discussions and deliberations because he had been excused from the meeting. So he could not have been aware of what was actually discussed in the meeting and the reasons for the decisions”. 

“That, with all due respect to the Committee, was unfair. It may well be, as the Chief Justice found, that the appellant knew what was “the burning issue” but he would have had no idea about the particular allegations being raised at the meeting, which possibly he may have been able to answer. 

“He was entitled to hear the case against him and to respond to it. Once he had been given that opportunity it was of course permissible for the appellant to be excluded while the actual decision-making discussion occurred.

But it was quite wrong for the decision to be made before the appellant had the opportunity to be heard. There are obvious difficulties in persuading people in authority who have already made up their collective mind to change it after a decision is made. 

“Normally once a court has set aside a decision on such a ground it will order that the decision should be re-considered in a proper process. 

“But Mrs. Woodroffe advised us that her client accepted that matters have moved on to such a degree that this is no longer a realistic course. 

“Once the interim injunction was discharged the division of the Queensland District proceeded. New Elder Ministers have been elected and confirmed in office. 

“Moreover, the courts are reluctant to order reinstatement to office in a situation where it is clear that there is a loss of trust and confidence in each side, as is evident here. 

“The orders of the Court are as follows: 

(a) The appeal in CA 11/16 is allowed; 

(b) It is declared that the removal of the appellant from the District was unlawful because his right to observance of the principles of natural justice was not honoured by the Directors Committee; 

(c) Costs are reserved. The parties may file memoranda as to costs within 20 working days of delivery of this judgment. 

In a judgment delivered in the Supreme Court on 3 August 2016 (Reupena v Senara [2016] WSSC 140) Chief Justice Sapolu dismissed Rev. Reupena’s claim against the members of the Directors’ Sub-Committee of the Congregational Christian Church of Samoa that he had been unlawfully dismissed from his position as Elder Minister of the Queensland District of the Church. 

The Chief Justice discharged an interim injunction that had until the trial prevented the Church from dividing that District and appointing new Elder Ministers for the separate areas.  

According to Rev. Reupena’s appeal, he challenged the Chief Justice’s conclusions that the dispute between the parties was not justiciable in the Samoan Courts and that, even if it were, the Constitution of the Church permitted the dismissal in the particular circumstances and a proper procedure, compliant with the principles of natural justice, had been followed. 

It is also alleged that the Chief Justice was motivated by actual bias in making his decision or that there was apparent bias. 

The appellant also applied to the Supreme Court for recall of the judgment again alleging actual or apparent bias on the part of the Chief Justice. However, at a call over, the Chief Justice declined to hear the recall application and peremptorily dismissed it. 

Rev. Reupena’s lawyer, Leuaiali’i Olind Woodroffe said the ruling is very important for members of the church. 

“This case now affirms that church members have rights that cannot be trodden on by Church Ministers holding position of powers in church hierarchy.  On behalf of Reverend Reupena, I argued strongly that Samoa Courts, do not have to follow what the Chief Justice Sapolu said “the traditional approach,” she said.

 “Samoa Courts must follow modern  global development relating to Church matters. when people are mistreated by those in power, in church disputes. I said that my clients rights to natural justice were breached, and I said very clearly to the Court of Appeal that the Chief Justice of Samoa’s statement that Samoa follows a traditional approach in church matter is wrong.

“I argued strongly that Samoa is not a country that is living in the dark ages, we are intelligent human beings, we know our rights, and we form part of the global world.

“I moved on to argue that the Church Ministers who act as if they are Gods, were acting illegally, and this must stop!

“I effectively argued that  the “archaic” views that decisions by faifea’us who call themselves Elders Committee of E.F.K.S, cannot be challenged in the law of Samoa, is unacceptable in today’s world . 

“This main argument has now changed the Law of Samoa relating to church matters. It is now accepted in Samoa that anyone who has been unfairly  and unlawfully treated by a church organisation, such as what happened to Rev Kerita Reupena, can bring a legal action in Court.”

The ruling will be published in full start tomorrow.

By Ilia L. Likou 04 April 2017, 12:00AM

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