Family wants finality over land dispute

A family at Vailoa Aleipata is calling for finality, in a customary land dispute they claim has remained unresolved, for more than fifty years.

The children of the late To’omalatai Lauvai II, of Vailoa Aleipata, visited the Samoa Observer to express their concerns over the uncertainty they face due to long delays. They are also desperate to renovate their house, something that cannot be done because of an appeal before the Court.

The son of the late To’omalatai, Ituau Faapalo To’omalatai, recalled seeing his father going to the Land and Titles Court for many years to find answers. He said his father was eventually jailed for contempt of Court for three days over the land dispute. 

“If I can remember we have had this land dispute for some 54 years," said Ituau. "It started from the time my father was alive."

The 60-year-old father lives on the disputed land in Vailoa Aleipata with his family and relatives. Despite a Land and Titles Court decision they claim ruled that they have authority over part of the land in question, they say there are still ongoing issues. Ituau said the issues exists because there are four different decisions on the disputed customary land and he alleges that they are inconsistent, making it difficult for the parties to settle their differences.

“One decision says we have authority over the land, another decision says we don’t,” he said. “There is also a different decision that says all parties have authority over the land and there is a separate land survey being carried out that unequally divided the authority of that land. 

“There is a lot of inconsistency with the judgment from the same Court and since the past when our late father attended these proceedings [to Mulinuu] there is still no finality even today.” 

The most recent decision about the disputed land is dated 25 March 2011, four years before the late To’omalatai passed away. That decision notes the authority over the land called "Soo" or "Soosoo" rests with  To’omalatai Lauvai Nuumotu, of Vailoa Aleipata. Furthermore, the decision ruled that another party was to vacate the land within three months. 

The most recent dispute, however, erupted when Ituau and his family wanted to renovate their family home.

“The house is leaking and there are tears from the weather and recent disasters,” he said.  “Now that the Court has ruled we have authority over the land yet we cannot repair it for our own safety. We are not changing the foundation of the family house we are repairing the roof from leakages.”

The family had written to the Justices of the Supreme Court in the past years to assist in their plight for an earlier hearing date of an appeal being filed by another party. This was after the L.T.C. President, Fepuleai Atilla Ropati, declared a conflict of interest. 

A letter dated 19 August 2019 from Registrar, Tuiloma Lopez Williams, to Onelau Fanene Soti confirmed correspondences from Justice Vui Clarence Nelson to the L.T.C., urging to assist the family in their case.  In that letter, Tuiloma noted they have received matters raised by Justice Vui where the President of L.T.C. had declared his conflict of interest because he is related to the parents of one of the parties. 

“However he [Fepuleai] advised he has no connection to the title Puepuemai and will do his work in accordance to his sworn oath before God,” the letter states. “If [To’omalatai family] opposes the President presiding the case, make this known in another letter to allocate another President to preside.”

It was not possible to get a comment from President Fepulea'i.

According to Ms. Soti, whom her uncle is the late To’omalatai Lauvai, their family did oppose the President presiding their matter. 

“We still haven’t heard back from the Land and Titles Court since August 2019 on who will hear our appeal,” she said. “There have been numerous correspondences from our family to the Courts and we also sought the help of the Prime Minister and the Minister [of Justice]. 

“The Prime Minister did write to the President about our matter and there has been no further response…”

According to Ms. Soti, the only letter they received earlier this month was to stop the renovation of their residence. There was no word on when their matter will be heard. 

The mother claims there are a lot of issues they face with the Court with very little explanation to them on what stage their matter is up to. 

Contacted for a comment, Chief Executive Officer of the Ministry of Justice and Courts Administration, Moliei Simi said she is familiar with the name of the case but she would need to look into it again as there are a lot of matters pending in the Court. 

“For the appeals, if the President cannot sit in then a Justice from the Supreme Court has to preside as President,” she said. 

“I will have to check again on that…” 

Concerns from the To’omalatai family were also raised during the L.T.C. Inquiry in 2016. 

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