Assessors removed in reformed Lands and Titles Court

Assessors will no longer be a part of the Lands and Titles Court (L.T.C.) process following the passing of the new amendments in Parliament, stripping High Chiefs of their jobs despite pleas to the Special Parliamentary Committee. 

The role of Assessors are not incorporated in the Land and Titles Court Act 2020 that superseded the Land and Titles Court (L.T.C.) Act 1981 which was repealed.  

Prior to the new law, at least one assessor must be in attendance before the Court exercises any jurisdiction conferred on it, the now autonomous L.T.C. no longer requires the attendance of an Assessor. 

The repealed L.T.C. Act 1981 included qualifications of a Samoan assessor, the appointment process as well as their roles in the courts.

However, there was no mention of L.T.C. Assessors in the proposed reform in Parliament early last year. 

This led the Assessors of the L.T.C. to make a submission to the Special Parliamentary Committee, questioning the removal of their positions from the proposed L.T.C. structure. 

The group of Assessors who presented their written submission told the media on the day that they were not consulted on the changes.

The Special Parliamentary Committee was tasked to review the proposed Constitutional amendments and conduct public hearings to hear views from the public on their concerns over the Constitutional Amendment Bill 2020, Land and Titles Bill 2020 and the Judicature Bill 2020 at the time.

The views of more than 30 Assessors across the country were included in the submission where they called the move "offensive."

The Assessors in their letter expressed concerns as to why the Minister of Justice and Courts Administration, Fa’aolesa Katopau Ainu’u, is moving to “remove” them. 

“The forefathers who wrote the 1981 Lands and Titles Court Act and saw the need for community representatives in the L.T.C., were not stupid”, reads their submission. 

“We have read the Lands and Titles Bill 2020 and it is clear the Assessors duties are removed from the Lands and Titles Court and it’s unclear why the Minister is mistreating High Chiefs of Samoa accorded as Assessors in the Lands and Titles Court."

Nevertheless, the passing of the Land and Titles Court Bill 2020, Constitution Amendment Bill 2020 and the Judicature Amendment Bill 2020 on its third reading in December last year secured the exclusion of Assessors from the L.T.C. reform.

Prior to the passing of the 2020 legislation, the unique and specialist Lands and Titles Court relied on lay Judges and Assessors to bring together their refined knowledge of Samoan Custom and usage in order to decide disputes concerning customary land and matai titles. 

They are representatives of the community and representation of the public on the bench when family affairs are being deliberated.

Members of Parliament, Salega East's, Olo Fiti Vaai and Urban West's, Faumuina Wayne Fong criticised the changes saying the Government is contradicting itself.

Speaking during their weekly programme on the E.F.K.S. TV2 programme, Olo claimed that whilst the Government maintains that the new Lands and Titles Court laws are to ensure the authority of Alii ma Faipule is restored and strengthened, their actions say otherwise.

Olo mentioned the removal of the assessors from the now independent Lands and Titles Court as one of the adverse ways the government is dismantling the Samoan culture. 

"Having assessors part of the process is how the Lands and Titles Courts have operated since the beginning but now that the new laws, which we had been very concerned about, has come into effect," he said. 

"The new laws only outline judges and lawyers to perform that area but the cruciality of having Assessors is that their work supports the work of the judges, regarding matai titles and land issues." 

Faumuina added that the move by the Government to exclude the High Chiefs from the newly formed autonomous L.T.C. does not reflect their push to promote the roles of Alii ma Faipule. 

"The group of Assessors was made up of respected chiefs of Samoa, but now they have been disregarded. This means there is no longer a chance for high chiefs and orators to assist in court matters," he said. 

"Remember the judges in those courtrooms are also only human, they will not always be right, but it was the assessors that assisted the roles of judges, but now they have been removed." 

Faumuina said it is the Faatuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.) party's mission to "correct" what has been done and the first step in achieving that is to "change the government." 

He then offered his sympathies to the Assessors whose jobs had been lost in the process of the new reform, promising the F.A.S.T. will do what the new amendment has failed to do. 

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