Taking the law into your own hands not an option

This week, the Court of Appeal ruled on a long-running matter that has attracted a lot of public attention since it first came to light over a year ago.

The Court of Appeal overturned the May 2018 ruling of the District Court – which discharged the President of the Land and Titles Court (LTC), Fepulea’i Atilla Ropati without a conviction – and convicted and fined him $7000.

The discharging without conviction of the LTC President raised eyebrows and led to questions being asked about the Judiciary and its ability to keep its own officers accountable and upholding the rule of law, especially after the respondent had already pleaded guilty to the charge.

To put this issue in perspective, we will have to go back to the beginning. The matter concerned an incident on the night of December 15, 2017 at a Ministry of Justice and Courts Administration (MJCA) Christmas party, where the defendant pleaded guilty to striking the complainant with two half empty bottles, and throwing a punch that the complainant managed to dodge. 

The complainant suffered a head injury from the ordeal, and had to be taken by his wife to the hospital and later a private doctor.

The matter first went to the District Court on March 13, 2018 after the respondent was charged on February 3, 2018. Following procedural hearings in both the District and Supreme Courts, he entered a guilty plea in the Supreme Court on April 25, 2018 and the matter returned to the District Court for sentencing. 

Following two procedural hearings, the District Court Judge Alalatoa Rosella Papali’i on May 11, 2018 noted the factor of the complainant laughing at the respondent before the assault occurring, thus “provocation albeit of a low degree”, as well as expressed doubt at the seriousness of his injuries and suggested the complainant exaggerated.

Subsequently, the District Court let off the respondent without conviction, together with other conditions including $1000 restitution to the victim.

But the prosecution appealed the decision to the Supreme Court with the presiding Justice Leiataualesa Darryl Clarke finding that the District Court Judge erred in her analysis of the “laughing as provocation” issue, and there should have been a disputed facts hearing in the District Court, followed by a fresh decision on whether there should be a discharge. 

The Supreme Court then set aside the discharge without conviction ruling and remitted the matter back to the District Court. Only for the matter to be appealed, this time by the Attorney General, to the Court of Appeal. 

The Attorney General relied on three grounds: the appeal to the Supreme Court wasn’t against sentence, but acquittal; the Supreme Court erred to direct a disputed facts hearing as the “laughing as provocation” issue is insignificant to determine if there should be a discharge; and the Supreme Court should have entered a conviction based on the merits of the case.

Early this week the Court of Appeal overturned the decision of the District Court and convicted Fepulea’i, on top of ordering him to pay a $7000 fine. The decision was handed down by a five-member bench comprising Justices Robert Lloyd Fisher, Rhys Harrison, Graham Ken Panckhurst, Vui Clarence Nelson and Keli Tuatagaloa. 

There is no doubt that the decision by the Court of Appeal is a major boost to the standing of the Judiciary. It has restored public trust and confidence in this arm of Government, and will go a long way in giving assurance to the people, that even the Court Judges and Justices are and can be held accountable for their actions.

The Office of the Attorney General should also be commended. It has been relentless in pursuing this and other criminal matters in Court, to ensure that justice is done and seen to be done. 

Looking back in retrospect, the decision of the LTC President – to take matters into his own hands on the evening of December 15, 2017 that led to the various ensuing Court proceedings – is now a dent in his otherwise unblemished professional career. 

And if there is anything we can take away from this – it is about using the systems and processes that are established within the Government – to address concerns such as staff conduct and performance. Taking the law into your own hands should not be an option. And if we represent the people in positions of leadership in the Government and the Private Sector, then the onus is on us to lead and show the way by upholding the rule of law and being good citizens. 

Have a lovely Easter weekend Samoa and God bless. 

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