NZ Law Society Calls on Parties to Not Undermine or Attack Legitimacy of Judges

Chief Justice Satiu Simativa Perese flanked by Samoa's Police Chief Sua Egon and Deputy Commissioner Papalii Monalisa.

The New Zealand Law Society have issued a statement in support of Samoa’s Judiciary amidst a political crisis that has seen the Courts having to hear numerous pre and post election cases and petitions, dating right back to court ordered amendments to the Electoral Act, and including a more recent special Sunday sitting in Chambers and two sittings of the Court of Appeal.

In handing down judgments through the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal, the Samoa Judiciary have been caught in the crossfire of a nation divided by continued strained relations between members and supporters of the two parties at the centre of Samoa’s political stand-off.

Nine weeks after the April 9th general elections, Leaders of FAST and HRPP have reached an impasse. As the issues are publicly debated, the Samoa Judiciary have been threatened on social media. Many die hard supporters of both HRPP and FAST have openly undermined the integrity of the Judiciary with personal attacks on social media when decisions do not go their way. Samoa Global News have had to bring down many Fb comments from supporters of both sides towards the Judiciary, as well as abuse towards Party Leaders and elected MPs when reporting on Court cases.

In a statement issued this week, the New Zealand Law Society | Te Kāhui Ture o Aotearoa affirms its support for the Judiciary and lawyers in Samoa.

President of NZ Law Society and daughter of Samoa, Tiana Epati.

“As Samoa navigates through the political and constitutional challenges following the recent election, the New Zealand Law Society | Te Kāhui Ture o Aotearoa stands in support of the Samoan judiciary and lawyers in drawing attention to the importance of judicial independence as one of the most important elements of the rule of law”.

“The Law Society is concerned about recent attacks on the Samoan judiciary. It acknowledges that Samoa is an independent sovereign country with its own legal system, customs and fa’a Samoa, but in any democracy the avenue for challenging and testing decisions by the courts is via the appeals process”, reads the statement.

NZ Law Society President Tiana Epati says, “the Law Society believes that the proper place to resolve these legal and constitutional issues is through the normal judicial process, including appeal. Those processes are now underway, and the outcomes must be respected.”

The most recent decision from the Courts was handed down by the Court of Appeal (CA) to interpret Article 44 of Samoa’s Constitution on the minimum number of seats for women in Parliament. The issue of what that number translates to has been much debated and scrutinised because without its application, the 51 Parliamentary constituencies had polled 26 FAST vs 25 HRPP, the closest election result since HRPP took over 40 years ago.

The Samoa CA found the minimum number of parliamentary seats for women to be 6, but any additional women needed to make up that 6 could only be determined after any post election petitions and by-elections that may follow. That is because post elections peitions could result in women losing their seats, while by-elections could result in more women entering Parliament, by winning at the polls.

In their letter of support, the NZ Law Society say it is timely to reflect on the rule of law following the recent Court of Appeal decision, and to remember that all parties must abide by the decisions of the courts.

“They should not undermine or attack the legitimacy of judges who are fulfilling their judicial oaths through the exercise of their independent and impartial judgment”, says the NZ Law Society President.

Herself of Samoan decent, Ms Epati honors the long and close relationship and association between the legal fraternities of New Zealand and Samoa.

“Many of Samoa’s lawyers have been educated here, and we share a similar legal heritage. We are both parliamentary democracies based on the Westminster system. Shared fundamental principles embedded in both legal systems are of vital importance to the preservation of freedom and good government”.

“Judicial independence is a core value of the international community, and Samoa has committed to this as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Trust in the independence of the courts and respect for the rule of law are critical to democratic government. This means that all parties are accountable to the law and subject to the decisions of the courts. When this is undermined, lawyers have a duty to speak out,” says Ms Epati.

“It is important to remember at this time that lawyers are bound by the oath we swear on admission to the profession to uphold the rule of law and to facilitate the administration of justice. While these are fundamental obligations imposed by statute in New Zealand, they are also obligations that apply equally to lawyers in Samoa.”

The New Zealand Law Society add that they have shared these concerns with the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The Samoa Law Society had also issued a statement two weeks ago to warn SLS members who had “disrespected the Samoa Judiciary on social media and other platforms”.

“We note with concern that some of our members have openly criticised our Supreme Court and Judiciary on various social media platforms in relation to proceedings that were/are still on foot. There is also evidence online of our members mocking the Judiciary for its recent decisions on the interpretation of the Constitution and its processes. Others have shared content that suggests that they personally hold the view that the Supreme Court is not the sole institution that is empowered by the Constitution to interpret its provisions..” said Samoa Law Society Vice President Su’a Hellene Wallwork-Lamb.

Sina Retzlaff