P.M. lashes out at N.Z. Law Society

The Prime Minister has lashed out at the New Zealand Law Society (N.Z.L.S.) after it criticised plans to reform the nation’s Land and Titles Court (L.T.C.) and the broader judiciary. 

In a briefing published on Monday, the N.Z.L.S. expressed deep concerns about the L.T.C. reforms, which it said threatened to undermine the rule of law and were introduced without consultation.

In a short statement delivered by his Press Secretary on late Tuesday evening, Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi said with the entire matter now before a Select Committee, the N.Z.L.S. has “no place […] to try to lecture us or interfere with our country’s democratic processes.”

On Monday evening, N.Z.L.S. came out against the proposed changes to the L.T.C. and Judiciary and said it has gone to the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade about their concerns.

Headed for the first time by a Samoan, the New Zealand peak body for law professionals said it is concerned the changes will negatively affect the rule of law in Samoa, a matter of extreme interest to New Zealand which deals with Samoa frequently.

President Tiana Epati said her organisation stands behind the Samoan legal fraternity and judges who have already spoken against the three Bills tabled in Parliament, including the process by which the Bills were consulted on and drafted.

“There is understandable concern that this move is likely to adversely affect the rule of law, the position of the Chief Justice and the supervisory jurisdiction in the hierarchy of courts in Samoa,” Ms. Epati said in a statement published by the N.Z.L.S. 

Despite the statement coming from the entire society, Tuilaepa directed his criticism at Ms. Epati.

“There is no place for the President of an overseas Law Society to use that organization’s name to try to lecture us or interfere with our country's democratic processes,” he said.

“It is a matter now at the Select Committee for public consultation, and it is a matter for Samoa. In short, it is none of your overseas presidential business.

“All the best as you concentrate on the needs of all your society's members, and we will concentrate on looking after our own country – Samoa.”

Then, turning his attention to the Samoa Law Society which asked N.Z.L.S. for support, he said: “I hope you and your relatives here in Samoa, the President of our Law Society, remember that Samoa has been independent since 1962.”

The Constitution Amendment Bill 2020, the Lands and Titles Bill 2020, and the Judicature Bill 2020 were tabled in Parliament in March, and are currently undergoing a Select Committee hearing process before being scheduled for their third reading.

Together they will create an entirely autonomous L.T.C. and remove the power of the Supreme Court to oversee judicial review. Unsuccessful parties would not have the option to appeal its decisions to the Supreme Court, currently a possibility only when a decision is alleged to have breached fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution.  

The L.T.C. would be a parallel and independent judicial structure, including its own High Court and Court of Final Appeal and Review.

“Whatever policy aims need to be achieved, it is hard to understand how such constitutional changes can be justified without the explicit support of a large majority of the people of Samoa obtained through proper consultation,” Ms. Epati said.

In response to questions from the Samoa Observer, an M.F.A.T. spokesperson said the Ministry is aware of the N.Z.L.S. position on the bills. 

“M.F.A.T. is aware of the N.Z.L.S. position. The N.Z.L.S. is an independent legal, regulatory and advocacy body for barristers and solicitors in New Zealand.

“Samoa’s legislation is for the Samoan Government and Parliament to determine in line with due process and after consultation with its citizens.”  

Ms. Epati is a Samoan who left her country aged 10, and said she represents her heritage as well as the Law Society.

She said she learned the “essential elements” of democracy in New Zealand: “proper process, the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and the availability of judicial review.”

As well as standing behind Samoan lawyers and judges, the N.Z.L.S. is ready to offer help where needed, and has a vested interest in how this matter plays out. 

The society pointed to the close relationship between Samoa and New Zealand’s legal fraternities, including the fact that kiwi lawyers helped draft the Constitution, and that many Samoan lawyers were trained in New Zealand.

“Shared fundamental principles embedded in both legal systems are of vital importance to the preservation of freedom and good government,” the society states.

Ms. Epati is the daughter of Judge Aeau Semi Epati and is from Falealupo in Savai’i and Sale’imoa in Upolu, who has also written about the Land and Titles Court . In 2019 she was named Lawyer of the Year by legal site LawFuel.


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