Rule of law is sacrosanct: Taulapapa Brenda Heather-Latu
The formation of the new Fa’atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.) Government after the April 2021 General Election became a turning point in the nation’s political history after it was followed by a four-month constitutional crisis.
The refusal by the Human Rights Protection Party (H.R.P.P.) leadership to concede defeat after the election and the challenges that the new F.A.S.T. members had to overcome in order to get their victories legitimised were numerous and often required immediate access to legal advice.
Samoa’s former Attorney General and veteran lawyer, Taulapapa Brenda Heather-Latu was in the thick of the action, providing advice to the F.A.S.T. leadership and making representations on behalf of the political party in the various Court proceedings.
Her role in facilitating the now famous tent swearing-in ceremony under the tent next to the Legislative Assembly at Mulinu’u on 24 May 2021 for the party’s new Members, together with her husband Matafeo George Latu, led to increased scrutiny from political opponents of the new party.
But in a recent interview with the Samoa Observer, she said she has no regrets over her and her husband’s involvement in the political historical event.
“I do not regret the involvement which George and I and Latu Lawyers played in ensuring that the winner of the 2021 general elections: F.A.S.T. party, their leaders and all their successful candidates, with the support of the Independent candidate Tuala Iosefo Ponifasio, were able to take their rightful place as the new administration forming Government,” said the veteran lawyer.
“Democracy not tyranny nor authoritarianism prevailed on May 24th which was subsequently confirmed by our highest Court.
“To have been so privileged and have been so blessed with the opportunity to contribute at such a time, will remain our most treasured memory of such a turbulent and confronting 2021.”
Taulapapa joined the private practice in 2007 after 20 years as legal counsel and adviser in the public sector.
She specialises in corporate and commercial transactions, civil litigation as well as corporate and good governance. And with an extensive background in the legal profession, the former Attorney-General is driven to uphold the rule of law.
Taulapapa is of the view that as humans we are all imperfect and the rule of law is often the last bastion before the descent into tyranny.
“An independent judiciary upholding the law is democracy’s last safety net,” she said.
The veteran lawyer also believes that the rule of law, democracy and human rights sets the boundaries for relationships between people, with each other and with those who govern us.
“And in Samoa our faith and the importance of our unique customs and traditions, altogether maintain peace and order in our land,” she said.
“With the exception of faith, when any one of those concepts is too strong or too weak, social instability is created and it is the rule of law which ultimately is our shield against rule breakers…”
She added that Samoa is now just emerging after a life of being ruled by an administration, which had been in power for too long and over the years became more contemptuous of the rights of citizens to be treated equally, fairly and compassionately.
“Whilst we declare our democracy often, we must also as citizens positively protect that same democracy when it is put under the pressure of selfishness and greed,” Taulapapa said.
“And we must be committed to value that vote which we have, not as some sort of asset to be traded once every five years for $50 tala on the morning of the general election, but as a treasured opportunity to give a message about who is governing you, and whether they are worthy to be given the privilege of holding state power and representing your interests.”
According to the veteran lawyer, the four-month long constitutional crisis together with the role that she and Matafeo played as counsels, were definitely the biggest challenge they both faced in their legal careers.
Looking back, she said the only other time when so much depended on the outcome of a case which the couple were involved in was the prosecution of Luagalau Levaula’s murderers in 2000.
Briefly discussing aspects of that particular case, Taulapapa said it had a large number of witnesses and was a high profile one due to its connection to Samoan politics.
“That course of events given the interviews of so many witnesses (many of whom would not give evidence for fear of reprisals) clearly arose directly and specifically from corruption within H.R.P.P. ranks with the prize at stake, which had been taken away being the Minister of Works portfolio and all the benefits arising from the control of all the country’s utilities water, electricity, roads, boats, plane and infrastructure,” she said.
“But for the New Zealand detectives and forensic scientists who were sought and arrived the very next day after the assassination…it would have simply been Samoa’s greatest unsolved murder mystery.”
Coming back to the constitutional crisis that followed the April general election, lawyers would have baulked at the thought of leading a swearing-in ceremony, which could legitimise the appointment of a new government.
Taulapapa said she had feared the worst of no restitution in sight during the political crisis. “Yes, there were times when the actions taken, particularly by Government officials, were so contrary to their duties and oaths that there was a sense of exasperation and disbelief,” she said.
“But which was eventually replaced by hope and the absolute conviction that ‘right would prevail’ and the rule of law, with God’s Grace, would see us through to where we were meant to be.”
Taulapapa also spoke about the verbal abuse directed at her, which entered the public space and became part of public conversation, to the extent that it “contaminated us all in filth and vitriol.”
“There needs to be a way to expel from our hearts, minds and fingertips or we will become the generation who ended the great traditions of Samoan respect and honor,” she added.
“An achievement which we will rue, as we hear our children and grandchildren repeat the obscenities.”
The veteran lawyer added that her ability to cope during those difficult times was defined by a number of factors: the unquestioned love of her family and closest friends through faith.
She also acknowledged her training at Crown Law & Meredith Connell in New Zealand by professionals whom she added were led by leaders who were “honest, reflective, wise and compassionate”.
Another factor she noted was having clients who were willing to accept advice and make decisions as well as the prayers of all those with Samoa in their hearts and the goodwill and kindness of many strangers who just wanted the best for their country.
In 2013 Taulapapa was appointed the Honorary Consul for Great Britain and Northern Ireland to Samoa and reports to the British High Commissioner in Apia. In 2018 she was elected to the Board of Habitat for Humanity(New Zealand) as a Director and in 2019 to the International Centre for Democratic Partnerships (Australia).
She was bestowed the chiefly title of Taulapapa by her family in 2014 which is from the village of Fogapoa, Safotulafai District, Savai’i.