C.C.C.S. asks Govt. to "shelve" L.T.C. bills
The Congregational Christian Church of Samoa (C.C.C.S.) has asked the Government to dump three bills proposing a major restructure of the country’s court system.
The church told a Special Parliamentary Committee established to solicit public feedback on the bills that they believed the legislation should be “shelved”.
The biggest denomination in Samoa met with the committee, which is seeking public feedback on the Constitution Amendment Bill 2020; Land and Titles Bill 2020, and the Judicature Bill 2020, on Tuesday.
In an interview with the Samoa Observer, the church's spokesperson, who is also the General Secretary for the C.C.C.S., said that the church had already presented a written submission to the Committee prior to their meeting this week.
According to Reverend Vavatau Taufao, the Parliamentary Committee, chaired by Gatoloatifaana Amataga Alesana-Gidlow, invited the church over to further explain the recommendations highlighted in the church's written submission.
"So the purpose of the meeting was to further explain and reiterate the submission we made to the Committee," Reverend Vavatau said.
"Our submission was maintained, because the submission of the church was a request to the Government to shelve these bills.
"We did not go to do a debate or argue against the bills. We kindly accepted the request from the Committee so we can discuss the points highlighted in the church's submission."
Reverend Vavatau said it was not easy for the church to come up with their submission.
"It was also not made up by an individual or just a few people. It was a collective decision made by the church, after seeking legal advice and expertise from both sides regarding the bills,” he said.
"We invited lawyers, one from the government and one from the Samoa Law Society to explain and help us understand the bills before we made our submission.
"If we look at these bills, you can't help but wonder. If those who went to law school, and are well-educated in terms of laws and legislations and have experience in this profession, are making a lot of noise against these bills, I should worry too.
"If they are threatened by these bills, an ordinary citizen like me should be alert and keep my eyes open.
The C.C.C.S. is the second denomination in Samoa who have made a submission before the Committee regarding the three bills. The first denomination was the Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints.
Asked about what motivated the church to make a submission, Reverend Vavatau said the church did not want to stand "idle if these bills will affect our people."
"They may say that we are scared of things that have yet to occur, but assumptions are not [born in a] vacuum.
"And wherever and whatever may come out of these bills in the future, records have it that the church has expressed its views and concerns beforehand.
"That's why we were happy after the meeting with the committee.
"Even though there were some voices heard that the church does not have a say in these issues, we are not trying to exercise power or anything like that. Our main concern is how these bills will affect the welfare of the people whom we care for and protect.
"So whatever may happen in the future because of these bills, at least we played our part by speaking up and making recommendations to the Government.
"Because the truth is, if these bills become laws and chaos occur in the future as a result of these changes, those who wrote and came up with these bills will not step in and stop people from fighting. If troubles arise, the church will have to step in and help settle and iron out any differences.
"And when they had said something along the lines that the church does not have power in such areas, it must be known that the church is simply expressing its concerns on how religion can be affected.
"The church must protect its work. We should be involved because we are all living in a political era."
The General Secretary said that the church has a part to play in Samoa's decision making.
"As citizens, we believe that wonders happen when we all work together. For that purpose, we wanted to contribute to the formulation of this legislation for the welfare of our people,” he said.
When asked about specific recommendations they had made to the committeec, Reverend Vavatau said: “According to the explanation by the committee, the three bills are the reiteration of culture, but our culture is already sacred.
"There have been incidents in villages, which I will not divulge, but should these things have happened after the legal recognition of communal rights, the question and concerns raised by the church is can we imagine what would have happened?
"There are already communal rights with Alii and Faipule (village councils). We should also [ask], what is [a] communal right?
"Communal rights are already recognised under the rule of Alii and Faipule. The only communal rights that should exist [are] nothing more than the consensus, the general consensus of the people.
"But it seems the communal rights being [advocated for] is the communal right that is decided upon by those who are decision-makers in villages.
"Practically the Alii and Faipule already have the communal right but the point we’re trying to make is, both communal rights and individual rights are already there in our constitution, culture and way of life, do they need to make it a law?
"We believe that turning those into laws will not guarantee that troubles will not happen.
“For instance, [we made a] law against murder, but it still does not stop people from committing such crimes."
Another recommendation of the C.C.C.S. submission is the independence of the judiciary.
"We are hopeful that the Government would come up with legislation that would maintain the independence of the Courts. Our courts need to be independent, so its decisions will not be affected or influenced by other bodies, to make sure that justice is served,” he said.
"If you see the Judiciary Service Commission, the difficulty will be the independence of this commission as the Government picks who gets into the Commission and everyone who will be employed will be handpicked and terminated by the Government."
Speaking about the Judiciary Service Commission, Reverend Vavatau said the church was asked to come up with "an alternative" to better the legislation.
"We support the proposed change that suggests the addition of two more members of the Judiciary Service Commission,” the Reverend said.
"The committee also asked us for an alternative. Initially, we did not discuss this matter, so we were surprised when they asked us that.
"We did not think they would ask such a question. Therefore, we quickly came up with an alternative and made a recommendation to the committee, to maybe include one member from the church; a representative chosen by the churches to be on the panel for the Judiciary Service Commission.
"So the Committee said they will consider our alternative."
Another proposal in the law, limiting the number of paramount chiefs (matai sa'o) a family could have, should not become law, the C.C.C.S. suggested.
"We also [said] that the proposed changes [to] the Lands and Titles Court will be expensive for the people.
"The church cannot sit back and watch while its people are affected."
When asked about the church’s intervention in politics, Reverend Vavatau said the church only became involved when it was compelled to act morally.
"The church cannot [stay] idle when its people are affected as well as their religion-related matters are concerned,” the Reverend said.
"This is why the C.C.C.S. made a submission in regard to the bills.
"We are living in and through a political era. So we cannot let politics punch us in the face and we just sit there and do nothing."
Another loophole in these bills is, said Reverend Vavatau, is the absence of religious advice in formulating legislation in Samoa.
"If you look at the constitution, it states that for any law we make, it should be based on cultural and Christian principles.
"With due respect to those who came up with these bills, but they did not seek any religious opinions when formulating the bills. I understand no one is an expert or a professor when it comes to theology and the Bible, but they should at least seek any advice from the church while putting together the bills."
The work of the Special Parliamentary Committee is nearing completion.
It is expected to be tabled in Parliament in November when the bills are likely to progress to a third reading.