Public consultation "unfair": Samoa Law Society

The Samoa Law Society has described the Special Parliamentary Committee's public consultation on three bills as being “unfair to lay-people to comment on laws that are complex and detailed." 

President of Samoa Law Society, Leiataualesa Komisi Koria, says the consultation should have happened before the bills were drafted, not after the bills had gone through their second reading. 

The bills in question are the Constitution Amendment Bill 2020, the Land and Titles Bill 2020 and the Judicature Bill 2020 which have being taken out to villages for consultation by a Special Parliamentary Committee. 

Leiataualesa said people should have been given the opportunity to understand the bills before they make submissions. 

“I am very doubtful that anyone who has attended the “consultations” has come away with a comprehensive understanding of the detail of the bills,” said the President. 

“Nor do I believe that these members of the public have been informed about the issues that have caused concern for the S.L.S., the judiciary, prominent members of our community, other law societies, international organisations and internationally renowned jurists.”

The Attorney General’s Office guideline on drafting legislations states that consultations should happen when the proposed act is being developed. 

Leitaualesa said this is so that draft laws can be based on input from stakeholders, instead the public are now being asked to comment on laws that have already been drafted. 

“This is totally unfair to ask lay-people to comment on laws that are as complex and detailed as these bills, especially when those people have not been given an opportunity to understand them,” he said. 

In addition, Leiataualesa said there are questions about what the Committee is telling people about the bills. 

The current consultation sessions are closed to the public except the villages who are invited to attend at specific times.

“When the Select Committee reports that villages have happily accepted the bills (as in several videos that have been posted online), the obvious questions are 'what were they told about the bills and were they actually taken through the bills in detail?',” asked the President. 

“Another concern about the manner in which the consultations are being conducted is that there is no transparency about what role the Select Committee is playing at these sessions. 

“Is the Select Committee presenting the bills objectively and then listening to and recording people’s responses? Or is it advocating for the bills so as to encourage public support?”

Leiataualesa said recently the Government agencies that have promoted the bills have disseminated explanatory materials about them to various agencies and organisations both in the public and private sectors. 

These materials are seriously lacking in detail and omit several important details about the bills that would cause concern to most people, he claimed. 

“The materials downplay the gravity of the changes that the bills make to the Constitution, our judicial system, the structure of our Courts and our ability to enjoy our fundamental human rights. 

“On certain matters, the materials are either incorrect or seem to be based on assumptions that remain untested and should not be presented as being fact-based.”

Furthermore, the S.L.S. President said if these are the material that are being presented to the villages by the Select Committee, then there is a huge concern about the reliability of the reports. 

He said it would show that people are not being given adequate explanation about the bills. 

Clerk of the Legislative Assembly, Tiatia Graeme Tualaulelei, recently defended the role of the Committee in hearing people’s submissions. 

He was responding to claims that the Committee was breaching standing orders by misleading members of the public by promising that certain sections of the bills will be removed. 

“The evidence given before Parliamentary Committees will determine Committee’s resolution and recommendation to the Assembly,” said Tiatia. 

“Analysing evidence will be the prerogative of the Chairperson and Members of the Committee. 

“As I mentioned above, Committee’s final recommendation to the Assembly is based on evidence provided.” 

In other correspondence, Tiatia also blamed the Ministry of Justice, Courts and Administration for the lack of public consultation on the bills before it was tabled in Parliament.  

“They should have conducted public consultation prior to submitting the bill to Parliament which has led to heavy criticism by the public directly to the Office of the Legislative Clerk," said Tiatia.

“The legislative process and Parliament has no affiliation with Ministries' public consultation [during the] drafting stage of Bills."

The S.L.S. had continuously asked for Government to withdraw the bills so that they can be subject to the proper consultation process. 

President Leiataualesa said if the ultimate objective of the “consultations” is to obtain the informed, fair and untainted views of the public, then the body or the individual explaining the bills should be absolutely neutral, non-partisan, apolitical and free of any political motivations. 

“In this case, we have three controversial bills that have been formulated and drafted by the ruling political party without proper public consultation,” he explained. 

“In response to public (and international) scrutiny of the bills, the bills have been taken through an unusual process of consultation by a Select Committee that is made up of seven MPs, six of whom are members of the ruling political party (the single remaining MP is being touted to join the ruling party shortly). 

“That Select Committee is now touring the country to conduct “consultations” on the bills with villagers in closed, private sessions with no transparency about how they are presenting the bills.”

Leiataualesa said in these circumstances, the consultations were always going to be highly questionable. 

“In such situations, the relevant public offices should spare no expense in ensuring that proper processes are not just “said” to have been observed, but are manifestly “seen” to have been observed. 

“Sadly, this cannot be said of the work of the Select Committee.”

Clerk of the House, Tiatia said the decision to keep the submissions on the three bills closed is to “avoid public confusion”. 

"The way the Committee holds consultations now is so the public will not be confused and misunderstand the different submissions made to the committee,” he said. 

Tiatia said the exclusion of the media from the venue did not reflect the committee’s disregard for the public’s opinion, but rather an encouragement of free expression and compliance with Parliamentary standing orders.

"The Parliamentary Select Committee does take into high consideration the various submissions made by our people,” the Clerk said. "But because these are very sensitive issues, we have to be very careful and cautious.”  

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