Family laws' review timely but handle with care
Last week there was a story that would have probably gone unnoticed and that quoted the Chief Executive Officer of the Ministry of Justice and Courts Administration.
The CEO of the ministry, Papalii John Taimalelagi told this newspaper of the start of consultation into local laws that were enacted during Samoa’s colonial period, specifically those that governed the welfare of children and family.
The article (Consultation on family laws underway) which was published in last Friday’s edition of the Samoa Observer, not only quoted the CEO of the ministry but also outlined some of those laws. They include the Infants Ordinance 1961, the Marriage Ordinance 1961, the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Ordinance 1961, the Maintenance and Affiliation Act 1967, the Family Safety Act 2013 and the Family Court Act 2014.
According to the article, Papalii reportedly made reference to a report tabled last year which recommended reviewing the current suite of laws covering family affairs.
“These are laws from the New Zealand time and it's about time we review those laws,” said Papalii. “There were amendments made in previous years but it doesn’t fully address other matters.
“The new laws on Family Safety Act 2013 it is more about protection orders and domestic violence in families and that needs reviewing again.”
We applaud the ministry for getting the review to specifically cover family laws – there is no doubt, based on matters that are coming to the attention of law enforcement authorities including the Judiciary, that Samoa’s basic family unit is in a crisis.
Consequently, the country’s laws that should be protecting the welfare of families should be revisited, to determine if those legal and even policy interventions that have already been written into the the legal statutes are adequately protecting family members and their welfare.
It is interesting to note that the Samoa Law Reform Commission (SLRC), according to the article that was published last Friday, had already done preliminary discussions with the MJCA which then went and worked on terms of reference that would guide the work of the review. It was also reported that a total of 13 public consultations were done at that time before a final report on the review of the family laws was completed and submitted to the Cabinet for endorsement.
But for a nation of over 200,000 people already impacted by recurring societal problems such as gender-based violence or domestic violence – which continue to directly impact the basic family unit – you have to wonder whether the 13 public consultations done by the SLRC had a “national footprint” through meetings with communities on both Upolu and Savai’i.
It makes sense for the Cabinet to order the SLRC to go back and undertake further consultations, but why was this consultation process only restricted to government entities?
We note that the terms of reference developed by the commission for the review were approved in 2018 by the Office of the Attorney General. However, a lot happened over the last five years – which include the measles epidemic in 2019 and the COVID-19 Pandemic – which all had a major impact on families as well as local communities.
Obviously, it is clear that the terms of reference which were approved in 2018 by the Cabinet for the SLRC to use could be limited and be unable to capture some of the dynamics associated with these crisis events mentioned above.
The number of partners including non-profit organisations, both local and international, currently working in this space in Samoa has also grown over the last five years. They too need to be part of the process of reviewing this legislation, which if only focused on government ministries could lead to gaps in the information collected.
Any review of laws that govern and purportedly promote the welfare of families should be handled with care and done in consultation with all the relevant stakeholders and not just government ministries. Samoa’s next generation would expect today’s leaders to make the right choices for their benefit.
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