New laws empower village councils, Parliament told

The head of a Parliamentary committee that sought public opinion on bills reconfiguring the judicial system passed by Parliament on Tuesday says they give overdue recognition to village councils and communal rights.

The Constitution Amendment Bill 2020, Land and Titles Court Bill 2020, and Judicature Bill 2020, passed into law on Tuesday despite protests from the judiciary and legal fraternity. Only four M.P.s voted against the proposals. 

The laws will establish an autonomous Land and Titles Court (L.T.C.) the decisions of which are not subject to review by the Supreme Court, change procedures for the selection of Judges and amend the constitution. 

But the Chairperson of the Special Parliamentary Committee tasked with seeking public opinion on the proposed legislation, Gatoloaifa’aana Amataga Gidlow, told Parliament the legislation would protect communal rights. 

Communal groups ranging from village women’s committee, untitled men’s groups, extended families, or churches and village councils would all benefit from the protections, the M.P. argued. 

“This is their opportunity to express their rights that currently don’t exist,” said Gatoloai. 

“This [communal rights have previously been...] defeated because it is not in the constitution.” 

Gatoloai was responding to questions from the M.P. for Lotofaga and former Deputy Prime Minister, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, during deliberations on the bill. 

Fiame asked the committee to elaborate on the definition of communal rights.

She also pressed for an explanation on how the rights of different community groups were being categorised. 

“Which of these rights is superior to the other?” she asked. 

Fiame said Parliament’s intentions should be reflected in the letter of the law.

Gatoloai said the L.T.C. had been established to afford villages the opportunity to establish their own by-laws. 

The Chairperson further said the new changes will finally recognise various groups and communities not currently afforded legal recognition.

The Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi, also took the floor to make a point of clarification during the deliberation. 

He told Parliament that the Legislative Assembly drafts laws which courts then implement.

“The laws are passed from here and set the divisions of which Court deals with which jurisdiction,” he said.     

Another issue raised by Fiame is part of the amendment that she described as a complete change in the bills’ original intentions. 

She said the Government had said at the outset of debate on the bills that the new changes would not use common law or “palagi (foreigner) law” in their decision making. 

“It has completely changed,” she said.

Fiame argued that when the changes were first proposed the Government was questioned on what would replace common law and equity if they became law.

She said the response was that decisions from the new court would be based on tradition and custom. 

But changed bills, she said, retracted that philosophy in favour of referring to common law and equity in decision-making.

Fiame queried how the “100 per cent change” to the provision will be implemented when individual rights no longer have a place in the new court system. 

She also expressed her discomfort in comments made by the Chairperson that the new court will decide on by-laws for each village. 

She said people showing up in court with different explanations about their village by-laws could pose several problems.

Fiame further stated that the Parliament’s Standing Orders meant further consultation was now required on the modified bills.

Gatoloai instead told Parliament that the bills would be subject to more amendments. 

She said that the use of common law would only be for the meantime until the court develops its own jurisprudence and will remove its reliance on the use of common law. 

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