Fiame details L.T.C. bills opposition

Former Deputy Prime Minister, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, has given more details on her decision to oppose three controversial legislation that propose to reshape the judiciary system in Samoa. 

Her strong opposition to the bills, which seek to establish an independent Land and Titles Court (L.T.C.), led to her decision to resign from her Ministerial position on Friday.

The bills, which are currently in their second reading and being reviewed by a Parliamentary Committee are the Constitution Amendment Bill 2020, Land and Titles Court Bill 2020 and Judicature Bill 2020.

Fiame, who was the Minister of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (M.N.R.E.), said the three bills do not address issues raised by the public including delay in judgment.   

She said the core issues highlighted in the 2016 Commission of Inquiry into the Land and Titles Court talks about internal issues [ano fale] of the Ministry of Justice Courts and Administration. 

She pointed out that the weak process is reflected on the inquiry report that notes that more than 90 per cent of rulings delivered by the Court of First Instance are subject to appeals. 

“That is the claim made that the proposed legislation will fix it but it's not the answer to issues like the delay in judgment,” she said. 

A former Minister of Justice, Fiame said her constituency during their submission earlier this week, queried the Ministry of Justice on how many cases are pending Appeal in the L.T.C. The response given was about 400 cases that are being appealed, she said. 

“The 400 backlog of appeal cases confirms that the problem has to do with internal matters and it is a reflection of the caliber of the officials, the judges in the Courts [.L.T.C.]," she said.  “If we had good judges then the number of cases appealed would be a lot less.  

“So it’s not a quick fix, it’s something that needs resourcing and capacity building for the judges and officials…” 

Fiame pointed out that the three proposed legislations will only create a backlog of cases with the changes adding another layer of Court, the Court of Final Appeal. 

“The proposal suggests that you have three go,” she said.  “But in fact if we had good Judges in the Court there is no need to take two extra steps. Another thing is and it's my concern is giving more power to the Land and Titles Court Judges that is very broad with very little guidance.”

In the current system, Fiame said it's straightforward as the Court deals only with customary lands and titles.

But the proposed changes will now give judges in L.T.C. the discretion to interpret Samoan customs and usages [tu ma aga] giving the judges an open authority to rule upon, she said.  

“I don’t think it's right to give one person [Judge] the authority to rule upon that without any guidance,” said Fiame. 

In reference to Samoan customs and usage, she pointed out it’s a human behaviour and a judge will now be given the authority to determine what is acceptable and what is not. 

“We all agree that our tu ma aga is important,” she said. 

“But how do you make the connection of tu ma aga and formulation of rule of law that will treat everyone equally instead of solely depending on the discretion from the judges? 

“As an individual I’m not ready to agree to that.”

Fiame added that the rule of law is the only way that will treat everyone equally under the law. 

Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi, in acknowledging the opposition from his former deputy and her constituency to the three bills, said he did not mind. 

Tuilaepa told 2AP national radio that the proposed changes in the judiciary was long due. 

He then accused Fiame of sitting on the issues in the Ministry in the past when she was the Minister of Justice. 

But in response to the criticisms from Tuilaepa, Fiame said that is the prerogative of the Prime Minister. 

She pointed out that if Tuilaepa felt that her performance was not good then she does not know why she was given another portfolio in the current sitting. 

Focusing on the issue, the former Deputy P.M. said she is comfortable she did her job.  

“My focus in many Ministries [I looked after] is to concentrate on the internal matters,” she said. 

“That is to improve the capacity of the Ministry because that is the way to improve its work and operations through policies and regulations. 

“So that might not be large and sexy but you really have to develop that tool to fix it.” 

Now that she is no longer in Cabinet, Fiame said her next step is to remain as a Member of Parliament with hope to contest in the upcoming general election. 

She said she wants to be in the Parliament when the bills are returned for their third reading. 

“I want to see where it goes and I’m only one Member of Parliament,” she added. 

“It’s important in the process that it was noted that there was another perspective expressed [about the bills].” 

The Prime Minister, when tabling the legislation in March this year, said the proposed changes reflect recommendations from the L.T.C. Committee report. 

He emphasised that the amendments are to accommodate grievances from members of the public, who have been victims of unjust decisions by the Court and delays in Court rulings. 

In the 59 pages report from the inquiry, the Committee detailed submissions from members of the public including that from the Ministry of Justice Courts and Administration. 

Among the many problems identified by the Committee was inconsistent decisions between judges of the L.T.C., unsigned decisions, multiple adjournments to cases and incomplete records kept by the Ministry of Justice amongst others. 

In June 2015, based on evidence before the committee, it stated that more than 90 per cent of rulings by the Court of First Instance have applications for appeal.

A submission from the Ministry of Justice and Courts Administration noted there is a steady increase in the number of appealed cases. 

The Committee then made recommendations to prioritise and restructure the L.T.C. Court to “officially recognise the Judicial Privilege of the L.T.C. which handles matters on our customary land and titles to be consistent with the recognition awarded the Supreme Court”. 

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