L.T.C. bills pass; P.M. hails "new era"
Parliament’s passing of three which will radically restructure the judicial system will usher in a “new era” for the nation, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi said on Tuesday.
The bills, which will amend the constitution, create a newly independent Land and Titles Court (L.T.C.) and change the selection of Supreme Court jurists were first tabled in Parliament in March.
“Today is a monumental day for the Parliament of Samoa,” Tuilaepa said.
“Why? Because it has been 60 years since our forefathers have wanted us to do this; to protect our country through the village council and also our lands and chiefly titles.
“It is done. I want to thank and commend those that were part of bringing this to reality.”
Only four Members of Parliament voted against the Constitutional Amendment Bill 2020; Judicature Bill 2020, and the Lands and Titles Bill 2020 late on Tuesday afternoon. A total of 41 voted in favour of them.
The vote came after months of opposition, from the nation’s legal fraternity and judiciary and international experts who warned of the proposals' potentially destructive effect on the rule of law.
But the Prime Minister said that establishing an autonomous L.T.C. has long been on the agenda of the governing Human Rights Protection Party.
The bills will create an entirely independent and autonomous L.T.C., the decisions of which can not be appealed to the Supreme Court but instead a higher court of its own.
On Tuesday, the Government tabled a report compiled by a Special Parliamentary Committee that had been touring the nation’s villages seeking public feedback on the bills.
Public feedback prompted amendments to the bills.
They included the removal of an original plan to place a cap of five on the number of high chiefs in a family and plans to completely remove common law as a basis for decisions in the L.T.C.
The chiefly cap has been removed from the legislation with the obligation to regulate the number of families placed on families’ high chiefs instead.
The Prime Minister said these bills were unique because they had been deliberated twice across the country and led to a report that paved the way for the three bills to pass through Parliament.
The Parliament’s committee said that it found a majority of the public supported the bill because it strengthens the role of village councils and communal rights.
“[The need is] evident in the rise in crimes in the villages due to influence from overseas,” said the Prime Minister.
Harkening back to the days of pre-independence Samoa, the Prime Minister said the framers of the constitution had the expectation that future leaders would deal with legislation designed to cement the role of land, culture, and chiefly titles.
He said deliberations concerning Article 103 of the constitution, which deals with the L.T.C., were momentous because the nation’s founding fathers realised that individual rights could come into conflict with Samoan culture.
He said that a total of 160 chiefs around the Country played a role in the forming of the Constitution.
“I want to make this clear, because of reports that only a few individuals had a hand in the forming of our Constitution,” the Prime Minister said.
“In my constituency [of Lepa] four High Chiefs were part of the discussion and there were a lot of disagreements during the negotiations for our [Independence] over the rights of individuals clashing with our customs and culture.
“They concluded to leave it [...to] future parliamentarians who will create laws that will give the power to the Lands and Titles Court to address these issues.”
But even as they passed into law, it seemed likely the reforms would have to survive an immediate legal challenge.
The former Attorney General, Taulapapa Brenda Heather-Latu, questioned the motive behind what she said was a lack of debate in a Parliament in which the Government enjoyed an overwhelming majority.
“[To] suppress a proper debate about the assumptions made in the Committee Report and the recommendations made in that report by the Speaker refusing to allow the four voices in opposition to debate the actual contents of the Report,” she asked.
Taulapapa has said that she will seek to, for a private client, mount a legal challenge to whether the new laws violate Samoa’s constitution.
Taulapapa further stated that the rules of the Prime Minister’s Human Rights Protection Party prevented M.P.s from speaking to bills already approved by the Cabinet.
This, she said, deprived Parliament of M.P.s’ “honest and candid view on the [Parliamentary committee’s] report.
“Only nine members of the total 45 members of the House actually spoke on such a hugely important constitutional amendment.”
She also questioned why this wasn’t a conscience vote for members to freely exercise their choice on a matter of such fundamental importance.
During Tuesday’s debate former H.R.P.P. member and Deputy Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata'afa sought more time for Members of Parliament to read the committee's report and consider its suggested changes to the laws.
That request was denied.
During his speech, the Prime Minister said there were two main constitutional issues the H.R.P.P. wanted to address during its current term in power.
Both, he said, were achieved during the current term of Parliament.
The first, the Prime Minister said, was to explicitly include embed Christianity in the nation’s Constitution and become a Christian state, which was achieved in 2017.
The second, he said, was the judicial overhaul passed on Tuesday.
“We made a resolution that by the end of this Parliamentary term, these goals will be achieved,” the Prime Minister said.
He said the legislation would lend more Samoan qualities to the country’s system of democracy and protect the nation’s tradition and culture.
In their submission to the Special Parliamentary Committee, the nation’s civil and criminal Judges warned the legislation would “effectively destroy the independence of the judiciary” and bring the Supreme Court directly under the control of the Executive branch of Government.