Shortage of judges, high-profile cases blamed for court delays

A shortage of Judges is among the factors a new review found led to more than 80 per cent of criminal cases coming before the Supreme Court being left incomplete for the 2018-19 Financial Year.

The data is outlined in the Ministry of Justice and Courts Administration’s annual report, tabled in Parliament last week and obtained by the Samoa Observer. 

According to the report, for the Supreme Court a total of 1,986 cases were scheduled but only 321 criminal cases were completed - a completion rate of only a little more than 15 per cent. 

For civil matters 1,121 cases were scheduled and 310 werempleted. 

The report blames a range of potential impediments for the court's relatively low completion rate, including a rise in high-profile cases and factors outside the court's control. 

“The Supreme Court has the lowest percentage of completed cases compared to its total cases scheduled,” says the annual report.  

The Ministry explained that delays in its completion rate were in part due to drug and alcohol cases being referred to A.D.C. (Alcohol and Drugs Court), which required the defendant to go through a potentially time-consuming treatment and referral process.

The report says there were 47 cases completed in Alcohol and Drugs Courts for this financial year. 

“[Defence] counsels appealing the Supreme Court decision [...] results [in a case remaining] on hold until a decision from the Court of Appeal is final,” the report also said. 

“[A] shortage of Supreme Court Justices for this year with the [Chief Justice’s] [remaining] vacant and one of the judges took leave due to health issues and that Counsels for both prosecution and defense not ready to proceed as scheduled.”

“In comparison [the] District Court [had] the highest number of criminal and civil cases scheduled compared to other courts in FY2018-2019,” the report said. 

“However, 59 [per cent] of these cases have been completed.” 

A total of 8,876 criminal cases were scheduled in the District Court, yet 6,126 were completed. 

Other challenges the Ministry said it encountered were high profile cases which drew an unexpected level of media attention and public scrutiny, said the M.J.C.A. Chief Executive Officer, Moliei Simi Vaai in the report. 

Ms. Vaai was only appointed in August 2019 to her role, which was after the period under review.  

“Regretfully, these led to the delay in progressing court cases and created an atmosphere of uncertainty amongst the Ministry,” the review found. 

“The increase in workload leads to growing demand for more staff to perform the services in all the different courts. 

“The need for an integrated case management and tracking database systems to record and provide accessible reports to inform decision making. Information [is] widely spread across the Ministry hence the need to track them to provide outcome analysis and effective planning and policy development.” 

The report also outlined key projects that were not financially supported by the Ministry’s local budget. 

The key projects listed in the report were: the building and establishments of the Community Law Centre to provide legal services and legal information to the less fortunate and vulnerable members of the community; and building the Ministry Office in the Salelologa township area to centralise Government services for the people of Savaii. 

“Unfortunately, these key projects were not financially supported in the Ministry local budget of this reporting period, resulting in the Ministry seeking and awaiting any financial assistance from our donor partners,” the report said. 

“The inability to financially support and resource these key projects crucial to promoting justice and the rule of law, make these outstanding work for both the Ministry and the [justice sector].” 

In May 2019 Cabinet terminated the services of the former Chief Executive Officer of the M.J.C.A. C.E.O. Papali’i John Taimalelagi and Assistant Chief Executive Officer, Galuo Serah Skelton, upon the recommendation by the Public Service Commission (P.S.C.). 

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