Court says Treatment of LTC President Extremely Poor, Unlawful and Offensive to Judicial Independence

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The Supreme Court has found the removal of Fepuleai Leutufuga Attila Manutoepule Ropati as President of Samoa’s Lands and Titles Court unlawful and rewarded damages against the Government of Samoa of $750,000 tala.

As concluded by Justice Whitten K.C. in his comprehensive 124-page decision delivered in the Supreme Court of Samoa this week:

“..the revocation of the Plaintiff’s appointment as President of the LTC and removal from judicial office pursuant to ss 67(6) of the LTA 2020 was inconsistent with the Constitution and offended the principles of judicial independence, and was therefore unlawful; and as a result, the Plaintiff is entitled to compensation in the sum of WST$750,000.”

Justice Whitten said Leutufuga was treated poorly and Government’s actions  were a flagrant disregard for the principles of judicial independence.

The decision states that every Samoan citizen is entitled to expect that the Executive will observe and maintain the Constitutional separation of powers, and ensure the independence of the judiciary is well protected.

“The treatment of the Plaintiff has been extremely poor. Notwithstanding the belated but salutary treatment of the other judges of the old LTC, the use by Parliament of a purported savings and transitional provision within amending legislation to revoke the Plaintiff’s appointment, as the most senior judicial officer in that Court, demonstrated a flagrant disregard for the principles of judicial independence..

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It must be assumed that the Government had or had access to legal advice on those principles. That disregard was exacerbated by the Government’s failure to offer the Plaintiff an appropriate position on the new LTC or compensation..

“That overall conduct, if not adequately redressed, will be left to stand as a silent threat to the tenure of all other judges who might also be ‘left out’ as a result of any future reforms or court restructuring..

“Appropriate orders must include a component for deterrence against any possible future recurrence..

“For those reasons, I consider that the sum awarded by way of compensation is inadequate to mark the Court’s disapproval of the impugned conduct..

“Having regard to the comparative decisions above, and comparatively unique and serious nature of the conduct in this case, I assess exemplary damages at $100,000”

Background

Fepuleai Leutufuga Attila was appointed LTC President in July 2016 under the provisions of LTC Act 1981. A Government restructuring of the Courts in February 2020 led to LTC Act 2020 which repealed the 1981 Act.

In October 2020 under a savings and transitional provision of the new Law, Leutufuga’s appointment as LTC President was revoked by the Government.

Leutufuga Attila was asked to vacate office by Monday 31 October 2022 in a letter from the Prime Minister, and on the 2nd of September, retired Supreme Court Justice Lesatele Rapi Vaai, who had returned temporarily to help with the demands of cases during the 2021 general election, was sworn-in as the new LTC President.

LTC President Convicted

Justice Whitten KC, included background information on Fepuleai Leutufuga’s conviction in the Court of Appeal.

In December 2017, Leutufuga was involved in an altercation with a security guard at a Ministry social event where the employee was struck on the head with a beer bottle.  As a result, he pleaded guilty in the District Court to one count of intentionally causing actual bodily harm, for which he was discharged without conviction subject to conditions.

The Prosecution appealed that result to the Supreme Court which quashed the discharge order and remitted the case back to the District Court for further consideration.

The Attorney General at the time, again appealed the decision and the Court of Appeal allowed the appeal, entered a conviction and imposed a fine.

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Subsequently, Letufuga was suspended from duty by the Judicial Services
Commission, which also recommended his removal from office.

A motion to terminate his position was addressed before the Legislative Assembly and the then HRPP party put it to a conscience vote. The motion failed to pass the required two thirds majority and Leutufuga was reinstated as President of the LTC.

As Deputy Prime Minister at the time, Hon Fiame Naomi Mataafa spoke up in Parliament to strongly object the reinstatement of the convicted LTC Judge.

“The question is, Mr Speaker, if the night watchman’s head had been hammered and he had died..? Would this House of Parliament still want him to stay on?”

The full decision of the Supreme Court can be read here.

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