Court of Appeal rules in customary land lease dispute

The Court of Appeal has ruled in favour of a Supreme Court decision to reinstate a lease on a customary land in Matautu (“Faga”) Lefaga where the Return to Paradise Beach Club is built on. 

The decision was handed down by Justice Robert Lloyd Fisher, Justice Rhys Harrison, Justice Graham Ken Packhurst, Justice Vui Clarence Nelson and Justice Mata Keli Tuatagaloa on Monday.

The appeal was dismissed with costs of $5000 tala each for the first and second respondent.   

The customary land in question is jointly owned by the Lemalu Saeni family whom is the appellant and Lemalu Fa’alafua family, the first respondent. 

The second respondent in the case is the lessees, Sua Pale Limited (S.P.L.) a duly registered company trading as Return to Paradise Beach Club. 

On the other hand, the Land & Titles Court and the Land & Titles Appellant Court is the third and fourth respondent.  

Lemalu Saeni family was represented by Leulua’iali’I Tasi Malifa while Taulapapa Brenda Heather Latu and Matafeo George Latu are the lawyers for first and second respondent.   

Attorney General lawyer, David Fong represented the third and fourth respondent.  

The dispute over the customary land began when the Fa’alafua family arranged for the Minister of Lands to lease the land to the S.P.L. company. 

S.P.L. then built the Return to Paradise resort on the land and other leased land at Faga.  

When the Saeni family filed an objection to this particular lease L.T.C. and L.T.C. Appellant Court cancelled the lease.

The Fa’alafua family and S.P.L. then responded with judiciary review proceedings in the Supreme Court in which the Court overturned the L.T.C. decisions and reinstated the lease. 

From that decision the Saeni family filed an appeal. 

In delivering the decision, Justice Fisher said the case concerns the jurisdiction of the L.T.C. Court to revoke a Ministers lease that has already been granted under the determination of the Alienation of Customary Land Act 1965. 

The Court heard the issue was examined in depth and the conclusion was the L.T.C. Court does not have jurisdiction. 

“Land and Titles Court has an important role to play in matters relating to customary land and Samoan customary titles and in this process they played a part,” said Justice Fisher. 

“Ultimately the decision lies with the Minister to grant a lease.  It creates a new set of legal obligation between lessors and lessees and these obligations are of the knowledge of the Supreme Court and so it’s a case of each court playing to its strength. 

“Once the lease has been granted the Land and Titles Court continues to exercise its important role of determining rights as between the beneficiary owners who are effectively lessors and that continues.  

“As between the lessors and lessees that is the matter for Supreme Court and by purporting to cancel the lease the Land & Titles Court was unwillingly venturing into matter which needed to be left to the Supreme Court.”

Justice Fisher added the L.T.C. had purported to cancel the lease and the Supreme Court did have the power to intervene in this situation to control what the L.T.C. was doing as the Supreme Court is the overriding jurisdiction to the terminal matters arising from the Constitution. 

The Court of Appeal also found that there were two breaches of Constitution by the L.T.C. Court. 

“In this particular case there were two accidental breaches of the Constitution by the Land & Titles Court,” he said. 

“One of them was to venture beyond the same jurisdiction, which comes ultimately from the Constitution and the other was the lessee was given no opportunity to be heard in the Land and Titles Court and because of that there was another kind of breach of the Constitution. 

“So the effect of this was we upheld the decision given by the Supreme Court that lease to continue and be valid binding. 

“We dismiss the appeal with costs to the first and second respondents in the sum of $5,000 tala each. 

“Because the fourth and fifth respondents did not play an active part in the appeal we would not award any costs.” 

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