Minister defends removal of Court files
The Minister of Justice and Courts Administration (M.J.C.A.), Fa’aolesa Katopau Ainu’u, has defended the removal of Court files from the Land and Titles Court and taken to his office.
In response to questions from the Samoa Observer, the Minister said it is part of his job to review Court files in order to respond to questions and concerns raised by members of the public in relation to matters from the Court.
When the claims about the files surfaced last year and when Minister Fa’aolesa was asked for a comment, he said then: “That is not true. I cannot respond to the questions if you will not tell me who said these things to you.”
The files were delivered by the Ministry of Justice and Courts Administration employee, Tualima Pio and the Secretary of Chief Executive Officer, Papali’i John Taimalelagi, to the Minister’s office in 2016.
Mr. Pio reported the matter to the Chief Justice before he told the Samoa Observer about it.
Later, an investigation by the Public Service Commission (P.S.C.) into the removal of the files – and other matters at the Ministry – was launched. It has led to the suspension of C.E.O. Papali’i John, A.C.E.O. Veataulia Fa’atasi Puleiata and the termination of the services of another A.C.E.O, Galuo Serah Skelton.
Some members of the public say the Minister’s involvement should also be investigated since the Court files were taken to his office.
Asked during an interview with the Samoa Observer, the Minister said the P.S.C. has already sought a legal opinion from the Office of the Attorney General regarding the matter.
“The Public Service Commission has sought the advice of the Attorney General on this matter and the A.G. has referred to the Lands and Titles Act,” Fa’aolesa said.
“Under the law, the Registrar and the President of the Land and Titles have the authority over Court files. The law does not prohibit nor does it say it is allowed, this means this specific part is specifically silent on whether it is allowed or not.”
Questions sent to Attorney General Lemalu Hermann Retzlaff have not been responded to.
But the Minister referred to section 47 of the Land and Titles Act, explaining that if anything is not addressed in the Land and Titles Act, it needs to be referred to the Supreme Court Judicature orders. He pointed to section 35, subsection 2, which reads: 35. Registrar - (1) There shall be appointed from time to time by [the Public Service Commission of Western Samoa] a Registrar of the Supreme Court.
(2) The Registrar shall be responsible to the Minister of Justice for the administration and control of the Court offices and he shall keep or cause to be kept such records of the proceedings of the Court and matters pertaining thereto as the Minister of Justice may direct and shall perform such other duties in relation to the administration of the Court as the Chief Justice may require.”
The Minister emphasised the part, which reads that “the Minister of Justice may direct.”
“This means when the Minister of Justice directs to bring the files, they bring the files,” he said.
Asked if the “directive” included the Court files pertaining to his family’s Court cases, he said: “If you read this (referring to the law) it covers those files.”
Referring to the Ainu’u Court files, the Minister said: “What happened was that Papali’i instructed his secretary to bring the files to my office while I was in Parliament. I was not aware of it.
“Upon my return to the Office, the files had been taken back as Papali’i asked for the files to be returned to his office.”
The Minister said it was Papali’i who instructed his secretary to deliver the files to his Office.
“I did not look at it,” he said, “but even if I did, considering this (judicature Order) it covers any files.”
The Minister said there is need for more clarity in terms of the law governing the issue.
“The issue now is to amend the law and to identify which files the Minister can review and which files he shouldn’t review,” he said. “The law is vague and should be amended.”
On claims that Land and Titles Court files are not to be removed from the Court and that everyone including the Head of State and the Prime Minister must be physically at the Court house to view them, the Minister said: “They are not the Minister of Justice and so they should walk there.”
He explained that anyone seeking access to Court files have to be a party or related to the parties involved; otherwise they are not allowed to review the files.
Asked why he denied the matter last year when it was brought to his attention, he said: “The question posed then was pertaining to the Ainu’u title, hence I said no as I did not review the Ainu’u files. I had reviewed those files before I became Minister.”
The Minister added that his office, located inside the Government building in Apia, is an extension of the Ministry of Justice and Courts and Administration Office.
“The M.J.C.A. pays for the operation of this office, technically this is an extension. If my office was located inside the M.J.C.A. compound in Mulinu’u no one would question it.”
The Minister said he deals with a lot of complaints where he needs to see what people are complaining about.
“There are many families that have written to me complaining about their court cases, and they copy the Prime Minister. Sometimes the letters are directed to the Prime Minister,” he said.
“And I get a directive from the Prime Minister to respond to letters from the public and the complaints are about the administration of the Court, where the judges are accused and registrars.
“Only then I would request for files, for review and response. I don’t meddle with the work of the court.”
Last year, Mr. Pio said the files he delivered included the Ainu’u title of Sapapali’i and one other about the “boundaries of Atua.”
“I took the boxes of files to the Minister’s Office; I was escorted by the C.E.O.’s Secretary,” Mr. Pio said then.
“When I reported this matter to the Chief Justice; I told him that I was instructed by the C.E.O. to take these boxes of files.
“I followed orders even though I know deep down that this was wrong. I don’t care what the outcome of this is, but at least I came clean and reported the matter to the Chief Justice.”
He also gave the Samoa Observer a document that lists the names of 10 Land and Titles Court files that were allegedly removed from the Court and taken to the Minister’s Office in October 2016.
Mr. Pio said he had worked at the M.J.C.A. for six years and he’s never seen anything like this being done before.
“The Head of State; the Prime Minister and all Cabinet Ministers come down to the Court to view the Court files; because we all know the Court files are not allowed to leave the Court,” he said. “It is prohibited.”