Acting A.G. silent on lawyers' criticism threat

The Acting Attorney General has refused to comment on allegations lawyers in her office have been warned against opposing three pieces of legislation, which proposes the overhauling of the country’s legal system.

Galumalemana Noumea Loretta Teueli says the meeting in question - and its contents - are confidential. 

But several lawyers have told the Samoa Observer that their online activities are being monitored, and they have been asked not to oppose the bills, which are currently before a Parliamentary Committee. 

They said they have felt threatened from expressing their opinions on the bills. 

The three bills, which have variously drawn criticism from the nation’s judges and some corners of the legal fraternity, are the Constitution Amendment Bill 2020, Land and Titles Court Bill 2020 and the Judicature Bill 2020.

“Unfortunately we cannot comment [about the meeting] due to our confidentiality responsibilities,” Galumalemana said 

“In that regard we would like to note that whatever information that has been disclosed to you, was disclosed in breach of the confidentiality responsibility of your source (whoever that may be).

“And to release it or to rely on it, would be continuing and contributing to that breach.”

 The meeting in question took place on Tuesday afternoon at the Attorney General’s Office and was led by Galumalemana with more than 30 lawyers present. 

According to several lawyers – who spoke to Samoa Observer on the condition of anonymity, due to fears of career repercussions – they confirmed that the meeting was held specifically to warn them against supporting the Samoa Law Society’s submission on the bills. 

That submission is due on Friday. 

At the same meeting, the lawyers also claimed that they were asked to refrain from opposing the three bills before a Special Parliamentary Committee for review. 

“We felt threatened and oppressed from expressing our views or even supporting our own Lawyers’ Society,” said one of the lawyer’s.

Another lawyer alleged that they were told that should they decide to ignore their instructions, it will be taken as their resignation from their substantive positions. 

On the other hand, all Government in-house lawyers were also scheduled to meet with the Acting Attorney General on Thursday. 

Three in-house lawyers further said that since the three pieces of legislation were publicly criticised by the Samoa Law Society, their online activities have been closely monitored. 

The lawyers alleged they have been told not to share any social media content that made reference to the bills and its discussions. 

When contacted for comment, the President of the Samoa Law Society, Leiataualesa Komisi Koria, said the Samoa Law Society Council had not been formally advised of such a meeting taking place. 

“However, all of the legal staff of the Attorney General's Office are current members of the Samoa Law Society and the Society will advocate for them whenever necessary,” he pointed out. 

“If it is true that any lawyers in any workplace feel ‘oppressed from expressing their opinions on the bills’ by their employers or colleagues, then we take this very seriously.”

But the President said that, if accurate, such reports represented potential infringements upon the lawyers’ basic liberties. 

“[That could be a] potential infringement upon a person's fundamental freedom of expression, association and assembly, which are protected in the Constitution”. 

He said that Samoa has ratified a number of international conventions that protect the rights of employees to form professional organisations and to participate in them without interference from public authorities.

“In any situation where an employer (including the Government) seeks to place restrictions on these rights, care must be taken to ensure that such restrictions are lawful,” he said. 

“We would also view such treatment as potentially being contrary to the values and Code of Conduct of the Public Service (which also applies to the Office of the Attorney General). 

“Every public servant is entitled by law to a working environment that exhibits impartiality, where employees are "treated with respect and courtesy and without coercion or harassment". 

While the Council has not received any first-hand information on lawyers from the Office of the A.G. being asked not to support the Society, the President insists that this is viewed as being contrary to the principles and values, which form part of the legal framework within which the public servants are employed. 

“We would encourage any of our members who have grievances about how they are treated to bring these to the attention of the Samoa Law Society,” he said.

To ensure their legal members are protected from any alleged restrictions on their free expression, Leiataualesa said the S.L.S. advocates for each of its members regardless of their place of employment. 

“We are communicating privately with certain employers regarding the freedoms and entitlements that our members should be able to enjoy without fear of adverse consequences,” he said. 

About the S.L.S. submission on Friday, the President said all its members are welcome to attend if their schedules and work arrangements permit. 

“We thank all of our members for their support and encouragement,” he said.  

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