A.G. silent again on husband's L.T.C. review

The Betham & Annandale Law firm, run by the Attorney-General’s husband, was awarded a $100,000 contract by the Attorney-General's Office to review a recent overhaul of the judicial system, the Samoa Observer can reveal. 

Last year's review of the so-called Land and Titles Court bills (since passed into law) is the latest instance of a firm now owned solely by Lauaki Jason Annandale being contracted to work for the Office of the Attorney-General. 

The engagements have both been made before Savalenoa Mareva Betham-Annandale became Attorney-General. But neither Lauaki nor Savalenoa has outlined what measures are in place to ensure the ongoing engagements are handled to prevent any perceived conflict of interest or ensure they are managed independently.

Savalenoa has also declined to comment about comments previously given to this newspaper that her firm was not engaged in the Government review of the bills. 

The Government moved to seek independent legal opinion on three bills after lawyers and legal experts say they threatened the rule of law in Samoa. The changes have created an entirely autonomous Land and Titles Court with its own parallel appeals structure beyond the scope of judicial review by the Supreme Court. 

A signed variation to a “Legal Retainer Contract” obtained by the Samoa Observer the Betham & Annandale firm was awarded the advisory work, which was scheduled to start on Monday 8 June. 

The contract notes that the firm would also employ subcontractors for the work, namely former Chief Justice Patu Tiava’asu’e Falefatu Sapolu and his sister, Luamanuvao Katalaine Sapolu. 

The contract was signed in July 2020 by Lauaki Jason Annandale; it’s understood the selection of the firm was made prior to the appointment of Savalenoa to the position of Attorney General in late July. 

However when the Samoa Observer previously approached Savalenoa at court for comments regarding her former law firm’s involvement, she denied any involvement in the L.T.C. review, as reported in a September 2020 article. 

The Samoa Observer sent requests for comments on Friday and Saturday to Savalenoa and attached a copy of the contract but did not receive a response.  

The contract is between the firm and the Government of Samoa, which was then represented by the Acting Attorney General, Executive Director of the Samoa Law Reform Commissions and the Chief Executive Officer of the Ministry of Justice and Courts Administration. 

Betham & Annandale Law were to be paid $1,666.67 per working day-inclusive of V.A.G.S.T. and subject to withholding tax, according to the document. 

“The total remuneration is $100,000 inclusive of V.A.G.S.T. and subject to withholding tax,” an annex to the contract states. 

According to the Terms of Reference and Scope of Services, the objective of the engagement was to ensure that Samoa’s constitution and laws are Samoan in spirit and substance.

Among the purposes of the engagement listed were:

“To elevate the recognition of the Lands and Titles Court in the Constitution given its significant role in considering customs rights in matters and proceedings over customary land and matai titles.” 

The Government also sought advice on how to respond to a chorus of overseas criticism from bodies such as the London-based International Bar Association's Human Rights Institute and the United Nations' special rapporteur on the independence of lawyers and Judges.

Among the expected outputs of the $100,000 engagement was for the firm to:

“Prepare and provide responses to commentary from International Organisations and other overseas bodies on the three bills”

The law firm’s scope of work was also to “review the bills to ascertain that [their] objectives are met and the structures and the full Lands and Titles Court structure [...] proposed in the drafts are legally sound.”

The firm was asked to review the submissions from members of the public locally International Organisations and other overseas bodies and advise on how those can be best utilised to meet overall objectives of the three bills.

The contract says the services commenced on June 8, 2020 and the projected end date for the series is a day between August 7, 2020 and August 28 2020. 

But a variation to the contract was made on 10 September, months after Savalenoa’s elevation to the position of Samoa’s principal legal officer in late July. 

That was to allow for an extension of the time taken for the work by the firm.

The September variation was signed by the Assistant Attorney-General, in addition to those who signed the initial engagement on behalf of the Government. 

The Samoa Observer has recently reported on the engagement of the Betham & Annandale Law firm,  of which Savalenoa was previously part, by the Attorney-General’s Office. 

That engagement was related to another matter involving Ulugia Ulugia Petelo Kavesi, Ulugia Matau Mateo and others against the Public Trustee and Attorney General’s office and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (M.N.R.E.).

At no stage did the Samoa Observer state or imply that Savalenoa had already assumed the position of Attorney-General when the firm was engaged. 

But she again refused to answer for this story as with the previous what, if any, disclosures or formal procedures she had put in place to avoid any perceived conflict of interest.

The Attorney-General declined to say whether she had taken any measures to counter a potential perception. 

Nor did she specify who would have charge for the contract with her husband’s firm and who was responsible for issues such as performance evaluation of the work tendered. 

Last September, the Samoa Observer reported the Chief Executive Officer of the Ministry of Justice and Courts Administration, Moliei Simi Vaai, said that a private firm was contracted to review the L.T.C. bills. 

“It was to seek a different perspective outside of Government – a view that is independent that will provide advice in case we miss something…it’s in case [the bills] does not reflect the spirit of the bills,” she said. 

The C.E.O. added the whole purpose of the review aside from the public consultation was to obtain a neutral perspective. 

Mrs. Vaai would not confirm reports that the review was carried out by a consultancy firm owned by the former Chief Justice, Patu Tiava’asu'e Falefatu and the current Attorney General, Savalenoa Mareva Betham-Annandale. 

“It was the time before Mareva’s appointment (as Attorney General),” the C.E.O. said.  “I believe the report has been submitted and it was only for a short period.” 

The Samoa Observer had previously contacted Savalenoa prior to her appointment about being involved with the consultancy works. 

She denied it. The Attorney-General did not comment on this or other questions for this story. 

In July 2020, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi confirmed that the Government was seeking an independent legal review of the bills to strengthen them. 

He stressed this was especially crucial to counter what he called “false publications” in the Samoa Observer quoting many legal experts including the Samoa Law Society. 

“In anything that the Government needs an independent view outside of the Government, then that discretion is used for contracts,” the Prime Minister explained. “Contracts are done in a lot of Government works, just like you all, and so the Government seeks an independent view of other lawyers that are not working for the Government.” 

A list of questions sent to Attorney General Savalenoa in recent days is included below. 

  • Last year you were approached for comments, regarding your law firm contracted by the Government to conduct an independent review of the three Judicature Bill 2020, Lands and Titles Bill 2020, and the Constitutional Amendment Bill 2020; but you denied it.  
  • This was prior to your appointment as Attorney General. 
  • We have received a copy of the contract with your former law firm, please can you comment as [to] why you denied it at first? 
  • Did your former law firm bid for this contract, or was it handpicked?  
  • What steps were taken to ensure there was no conflict of interest?
  • Feel free to address any issues you know are relevant. 

 

 

 

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