Independent Land and Titles Court proposed

The Land and Titles Court (L.T.C.) would become independent from other courts under a proposed change for reshaping Samoa’s judicial system debated in Parliament on Tuesday. 

The Constitution Amendment Bill 2020 would create a Land and Titles Court independent from the Ministry of Justice and Courts Administration. 

The Bill would create a parallel and independent judicial structure, including an L.T.C. High Court and Court of Final Appeal and Review, removing the option to appeal L.T.C. decisions to the Supreme Court. 

The Bill seeks to amend the Constitution and to replace the current Land and Titles Act 1981. It includes a maximum limit on the number of Paramount Chiefs allowed in a family. 

Advocates say that the creation of a specialist court would speed up dispute resolutions and create a judicial institution specialising in the preservation of Samoan culture. 

But a prominent opposition Member of Parliament, Olo Fiti Vaai, said the reforms were unduly hasty and would disempower Samoan families. 

An accompanying memorandum of the proposed measure details the framework for the plan. 

Under the Bill the C.E.O. of the Ministry also known as the Court Registrar shall be the Registrar of the Land and Titles Court. 

“Through the new framework, Samoa attempts to further emphasise the importance and uniqueness of Samoa’s tu ma aganu’u (culture and tradition) and her customary land and Matai titles, by affording it the specialist nature it was intended to have,” the memorandum reads. 

But Olo expressed concerns over the new Bill’s ramifications and its similarity to another piece of legislation currently before a parliamentary committee. 

“What happened to the [similar] Bill that was tabled in Committee in 2018?,” he said.

“This is a whole new Bill and it seems to me, this [new proposed] measure was rushed before Parliament.” 

But Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi dismissed the claims and said this new Bill was not introduced hurriedly.

He noted a Commission of Inquiry had been held into the work of the Land and Titles Court after numerous complaints were made about its workings four years ago. The proposed changes are a result of the Commission’s recommendations, Tuilaepa said. 

“When it comes to [amending of the] Constitution, we don’t rush the process,” the Prime Minister said. 

Olo questioned both the spirit and the letter of the Bill, particularly the limitation of each family to having only five Paramount Chiefs. 

“The amendment is not set out to protect the culture, rather to break our culture that is the truth,” he said. 

“The families should be able to appoint their Sa’o (Paramount Chief); it is their decision.”

The Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi, interrupted and said there was traditionally only one Sa’o for each family. 

“It’s not our culture to have 300 Sa’o,” he said. 

“We had only one Sa’o but that is not the case nowadays. I’m puzzled as to how you (Olo) did not pick up what is happening right now. 

“And there should be a court that can deal directly with protection of our tradition and culture and deal with people that are taking advantage of this.” 

The Prime Minister said that some Chiefs are greedy and families were paying for it. 

Parliament debated the Bill’s intent to maintain the integrity of the Samoan chiefly system through the imposition of limitations. 

“At the commencement of this Act if a family holds a lesser number of Matai Sa’o than five only that number will be registered and if more than five, there shall be no further matai sa’o to be registered; and those already registered will continue to be registered until a Matai Sa’o no longer holds the Matai Sa’o title under the provisions of this Act, or by death,” the text of the Bill reads.  

Member of Parliament Faumuina Tiatia Liuga supports making the L.T.C. independent. 

“It is an appropriate change to preserve our culture and traditions,” he said. 

“Samoa is unique in its way of life and we are different from other countries hence the importance of making the L.T.C. independent. 

“The issue that comes to mind is the funding for this new proposal. The cost is not important and keeping in mind the Government’s mandate is service provider; not a business. 

“And looking at the benefits of these amendments, the decisions will be issued in a timely fashion.” 

He said families will not have to wait years for their family case. 

Faumuina said there are presently three arms of Government and having the L.T.C. independent will add another. 

But he urged the Cabinet to consider the fact that a C.E.O.’s contract is for three years; M.P.’s terms are for five years andyet the judges don’t have contracts. 

“The Parliament should consider hiring judges on five [yearly] contracts,” he said.

He added that Judges should also be scrutinised for their suitability for the job every five years like other senior executives. 

To be eligible to be a chief, the Bill says a person must be: Samoan; at least 21 years old; and prepared to carry out the obligations of his or her Matai title including properly serving his or her family, village and community according to Samoan custom and usage; and register with the Court. 

A criminal conviction for an offence carrying a prison sentence greater than seven years would render a person ineligible to hold a title unless their aiga (family) unanimously support the bestowment of that person’s Matai Title.

The Bill spells out the bestowmen of a title needs to be done in accordance with Samoan customs; officially registered with the L.T.C.; the holding of a traditional ceremony of appointment in the village from which that Matai originates. The new Matai must also be present at the ceremony. 

The Bill also makes it illegal for a person to be addressed by a Chiefly title if they do not hold one. 

“A person other than the rightful holder who uses a Matai Title, or permits himself or herself to be addressed by a Matai Title, or acts as the holder of a Matai Title he or she has not been bestowed, commits an offence and is liable upon conviction to a fine not exceeding 10 penalty units or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months,” the Bill’s text says. 

The measure proposes that any L.T.C. decision can be appealed before the Land and Titles High Court and Land and Titles Court of Final Appeal and Review.

Debate on the matter before Parliament continues on Wednesday. 


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