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The suspended L.T.C. President’s fate, and its implications for the rule of law

Samoa is less than a week away from the opening of the 2019 Pacific Games, and everyone has literally begun the countdown, to the region’s biggest sporting event.

But there is another matter — which would have long-term implications for this democratic nation and warrants scrutiny — when it goes before Parliament for its deliberations.

The Parliamentary Special Inquiry Committee, which was appointed by the Parliament to assess the resolution by the Judicial Services Committee to suspend Fepulea'i Atilla Ropati, has recommended that the Legislative Assembly endorse his reinstatement to his substantive position as the President of the Lands and Titles Court (L.T.C.).

The decision of the Committee comes after the Judicial Service Commission (J.S.C.) unanimously voted to recommend Fepulea'i’s suspension, after the Appellate Court convicted and fined him $7000 for causing actual bodily harm with intent on Saili Leota, who works as a security guard with the Ministry of Justice and Courts Administration (M.C.J.A.).

Parliament is in danger of creating and adding to public perception that there are two sets of laws in Samoa today — one for ordinary citizens and another for leaders such as politicians and judges. At the end of the day a competent court of law in Samoa, the Appellate Court, found Fepulea'i guilty and consequently convicted and fined him  $7000 and its judgement cannot be belittled. 

We have always believed that the bar should be raised for leaders, when it comes to respecting the rule of law, and conduct themselves appropriately. Leaders are after all role models in the community, and are looked upon to provide leadership for the benefit of the people.

Sadly, Fepulea'i — through his actions which the Appellate Court has found him guilty of — does not measure up to those benchmarks that would be expected of a senior member of the Judiciary. 

We concur with the concerns expressed by the Member of Parliament for Salega, Olo Fiti Vaai, who also warned of the implications that such a vote in Parliament will have on public confidence in the Judiciary.

“How will members of the public view the reinstatement of a Judge with a criminal background, if it was any position I am certain there is some leniency, but not when it comes to Judges. 

“They pass judgement and if we allow this, it will not paint a good picture, not only in the country but also to our overseas counterparts. 

“And I put it to the Prime Minister and remind him of his public comments, no one is above the law and therefore I rescind the recommendation by the Parliamentary Special Inquiry Committee. It is absurd, to say the least,” he said in an interview with this newspaper.

There have been numerous instances when Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi made reference to the rule of law in Samoa, and the need for citizens to respect it.

In May this year he used Cabinet’s termination of the Chief Executive Officer of the M.J.C.A., Papali’i John Taimalelagi, as an example of his Government taking a hardline against public servants facing misconduct allegations and showing that “no one is above the law”.

“As I have repeatedly stated in the past, no one is above the law and if there are allegations, the process is in place to deal with them,” he told this newspaper.

Theoretically, if the definition the Prime Minister used in this instance is applied to Fepulea'i’s case, the suspended LTC President will be asked to resign or be sacked by the Parliament (that is on the understanding that the Members of Parliament will vote along party-lines, as most of them are members of Tuilaepa’s Human Rights Protection Party).

It is rather surprising that the Parliamentary Special Inquiry Committee did not consider the broader implications of their decision, before putting pen to paper in their recommendations to reinstate Fepulea'i.

When the Appellate Court handed down its judgement in April this year, it highlighted the need for members of the Judiciary not to be seen to be “protecting their own” and emphasised the need for judges to meet high standards.

“The fundamental of Courts - that the judiciary should not be seen to be protecting one of their own.

“Judges are expected to make results to high standards and they must be held to account like all other members of the community,” said Appellate Court’s Justice Robert Lloyd Fisher, on behalf of his colleagues Justice Rhys Harrison, Justice Graham Ken Panckhurst, Justice Vui Clarence Nelson and Justice Keli Tuatagaloa.

If Parliament votes to reinstate the L.T.C. President to his substantive position, there is no doubt that citizens will see it as a vote by Members of Parliament to protect one of their own, who is also a leader in the community.

While the onus is now on Members to do what is right — in the eyes of the people who gave them the mandate — the suspended L.T.C. President should also think about his position in relation to the Parliamentary Committee’s recommendations and makes a choice that shows that he too respects the rule of law in this country.

Have a lovely Monday Samoa and God bless.

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