New fees bypassed approval process
Neither the National Revenue Board nor Cabinet approved new fees implemented by the Land and Titles Court (L.T.C.) including $500 payments required to secure postponements of special hearings.
The Chairman of the National Revenue Board, Leasiosiofaasisina Oscar Malielegaoi, who is also the Chief Executive Officer for the Ministry of Finance, confirmed that the organisation had not endorsed the new fee structure in contradiction of established procedure.
The fees were announced earlier this month, in a notice signed by the President of the L.T.C., Fepulea’i Atilla Ropati, who argued they were a means of encouraging more efficient use of the Court's time.
Leasiosio told the Samoa Observer that irrespective of the Ministry of Justice and Courts Administration’s status as one arm of Government, they should all come through the Revenue board before seeking to impose new fees.
“And that’s the only window to Cabinet [that gives the final approval],” he said.
He explained that new fees should be preceded by a submission to the National Revenue Board which will either endorse or decline the application. The board then prepares a separate submission to Cabinet for its endorsement.
“From experience there were a number of proposals that came through to either reduce [or] increase [fees] or the board can approve for the fees to remain standing,” he said.
“That’s the role of the board.
“For these specific fees the [M.J.C.A.] did not come through the Revenue board.
“They only submitted to us after it was published in the newspaper and [as] they issued a notice to the public. We’re now doing a review and once we finalise [it], we will call a meeting and invite [the Ministry] and discuss the paper [...] normally after that we [would] submit [it] to cabinet.”
Regarding any fees already paid, Leasiosio said it any case the board declines the proposal the M.J.C.A. will have to issue refunds.
“However my initial reaction after reviewing their fees it’s not a bad move,” he said.
“I think the information that is coming out to the public [does not] outline the gist of why the fees were initially proposed. The fees - it’s more to force people to comply and that’s how I see it and you won’t have to pay if you comply.”
“And so the spirit behind submitting these fees is not bad at all,” he said.
Asked whether it was illegal the Ministry implemented the fees without prior approval, Leasiosio said no.
Asked whether he supports the fees, Leasiosio declined to comment noting the approval has to come from the board.
The fees were outlined in a letter, dated 7 February, 2020 and titled "Policy and Guidelines". The letter noted that a $300 fee will be required for making statements of claim.
For L.T.C. Special Hearings, any postponement will cost $500 on top of a $200 fee charged to both involved parties.
“For matters that have already been scheduled for the L.T.C. the statement of claim must be received by the Registrar a week before the case is before the court," says a translated copy of the letter, which is in Samoan.
“For example, in a case scheduled the first week or March the statement of claim must be submitted before the second week of February.
“The Registrar will only accept the statement of claim for the case once a fee of $300 is paid. However, for statements of claim submitted on the day of the case a fee of $500 must be paid first,” said the letter.
Fepuela’i in his letter noted the L.T.C. has no intention of seeking funds from the public or adding to their burdens.
“However the intention is to encourage parties to submit their statements of claim and affording the judges the opportunity and ample time to go through the claims before the case is called,” he said.
Fepulea’i in his letter says without appropriate time for Judges to go through claims there is a chance the claims will not be properly vetted. High Chief Maota Logologotaeao from Savai’i said the new fees will only pose an obstacle to those seeking justice.
“Other families can afford the new fees, but other families are not as fortunate,” said Maota.
“Where is the justice in that?”