President of Land and Titles Court backs L.T.C. Bills

The President of the Land and Titles Court (L.T.C.), Fepuleai Atilla Ropati, says he supports the Government's plan to make the Land and Titles Court independent from the Civil and Criminal Court. 

In an interview with the Samoa Observer, Fepulea’i, who is also a lawyer by profession, said the proposed changes in the Constitution Amendment Bill 2020, the Land and Titles Court Bill 2020 and the Judicature Bill 2020, will improve the administration and the efficiency of the L.T.C.

Fepulea'i's support for the bills contradicts the position of the Judges of the Civil and Criminal Court and the Samoa Law Society, as well as a growing number of prominent Samoans who have spoken up against the plan. 

“I respect their views on the issue,” Fepulea'i said.

“But as the President of the Land and Titles Court I agree with it [the proposed legislations] in that it will improve the operations of the Lands and Titles Court.”

The legal fraternity has cautioned the Government that the proposed changes will infringe on fundamental rights of Samoans and the proposed bills threaten to split the judiciary into a “two headed” justice system. 

But President Fepulea'i disagrees.

He said "change is good" and the spirit behind the proposed legislations “will improve the Land and Titles Court”. 

Asked how the bills will improve the work of the L.T.C., considering the concerns raised by the Samoa Law Society and Judges, Fepulea'i declined to elaborate, saying a “collective view” from the L.T.C. Judges will be inked in a submission to be made before the Special Parliamentary Committee tasked to review the bills. 

Asked about other L.T.C. Judges who might not share the “collective view” to split the Courts, Fepulea’i said those Judges are free to make their individual submissions before the Committee.

The response from the President of L.T.C. follows opposition from the Criminal Court Judges and lawyers on the legislations warning the bills will "destroy" the principle of the separation of powers. 

A letter from the Judiciary excluding the L.T.C. “whom have elected to respond separately” and dated 6 April, expressed grave concerns by the Criminal Court Judges about the risks of the creation of an independent L.T.C.   

The letter was signed by Acting Chief Justice, Vui Clarence Nelson, Senior Justice Niava Mata Tuatagaloa, Justice Tafaoimalo Leilani Tuala-Warren, Justice Leiataualesa Daryl Clarke, Justice Fepulea'i Ameperosa Roma, Senior Judge Talasa Atoa-Saaga, Judge Alalatoa Rosella Papalii, Judge Leota Ray Schuster and Judge Loau Donald Kerslake.

In the letter, the senior Judges had caution about safeguarding the Constitution and the wisdom with which Samoa’s ancestors wrote it. 

“Any structure that separates the interpretation and protection of Constitutional rights between two Court systems is in our respectful view flawed, unworkable and carries significant inherent risks,” the letter reads.

“This is a slippery slope and we are sure the Government does not want the Constitution to become the plaything of politicians.” 

The Judges recommend the complete withdrawal of the three package legislation that proposes the creation of an independent Land and Titles Court. 

The Judges say the proposal has been “dangerously” ill-considered given its potential far-reaching effects on the nation’s Courts.

Other nations with customary courts, such as New Zealand, the Judges argue, are still subject to oversight by national Supreme Courts.

The Judges claim the Bill has several practical limitations, including the availability of jurists and other resources for a newly parallel judiciary but they also say they are “at a loss” to understand the “rush” with which it has been introduced.

“To blithely state that the public and any other interested parties can express their views at the Parliamentary Select Committee phase demonstrates a dangerously blasé attitude to Constitutional change,” the Judges write.

“The establishment of a separate Judicial Service Commission is unnecessary duplication and will serve only to split the Judiciary.

"Any structure that separates the interpretation and protection of Constitutional rights between two Court systems is in our respectful view flawed, unworkable and carries significant inherent risks. 

“The provision represents a serious and significant risk for increased litigation and legal argument with entirely unknown consequences.”

Furthermore, the Judges urge that “what is not broken does not require fixing”. 

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