South Pacific Issues, 2022
Author: Gordon Hughes, Chair, South Pacific Issues Committee, Law Council of Australia
The South Pacific Issues Committee of the International Law Section, often in conjunction with the South Pacific Lawyers Association ("SPLA"), engaged in numerous activities relevant to the Pacific legal profession during the course of 2022.
There were two major rule of law issues, one involving the separation of powers and the other involving the independence of the profession.
The first involved Kiribati, where the government appointed its Attorney-General as Acting Chief Justice in October 2022. The Committee supported the Law Council's expression of concern that to hold both offices simultaneously was inconsistent with the separation of powers, which requires that the judiciary be independent of the executive arm of government, as well as being of doubtful constitutional validity.
The second involved Fiji, where prominent practitioner Richard Naidu was charged in September 2022 with contempt of the High Court after publishing a flippant message on social media. The Committee supported the appointment of an independent observer by the Law Council and the IBA, and was troubled by the observer's report that Mr Naidu had been unable to test the evidence against him and had been denied the opportunity to ascertain in advance what evidence would be used against him.
The Committee meanwhile supported initiatives to provide assistance to law associations in the South Pacific. These initiatives included an offer of assistance by SPLA to the Tonga Law Society following the Hunga Ha’apai volcanic eruption and tsunami in January 2022; dialogue with Timor Leste lawyers regarding climate change issues; and interaction with and support for the Australia-Vanuatu Policing and Justice Program.
There were two significant training initiatives in the South Pacific, both of which the Committee supported. The first involved participation in an Alternative Dispute Resolution Conference and training session in Fiji in September, held in conjunction with the Fiji Law Society, the South Pacific Lawyers Association, LAWASIA and the Commonwealth Lawyers Association; the second involved a training session for Cook Islands government lawyers at the request of the Cook Islands Solicitor-General, conducted by members of the Queensland Bar, in December 2022.
Finally, the Committee supported the response by the Law Council International Division and the South Pacific Lawyers Association to concerns raised about the ongoing financial viability of PacLii. PacLII is the principal source of legal information for 20 Pacific Island jurisdictions, and is an essential resource for practitioners, particularly in jurisdictions with little to no centralisation of legislation and case law. The viability of the service was threatened following the withdrawal of funding by PNG where the government had developed its own electronic database called the PNG Legal Information Network. Meetings were arranged with the University of the South Pacific (which administers PacLII) and AustLII to discuss the impact of this funding withdrawal, and to discuss how the Law Council (including in its capacity as Secretariat of SPLA) could support PacLII’s ongoing operation. This issue is ongoing.
Persons interested in the work of the South Pacific Issues Committee might well consider joining the International Law Section and becoming involved. New members of the Committee are always welcome.