Fiji’s sacked chief justice back on bench

Chris Merritt | May 29, 2009

Article from:  The Australian

FIJI’S sacked chief justice Anthony Gates has startled the international legal profession by accepting reappointment to the bench from the regime that overthrew Fiji’s Constitution.

Justice Gates, who holds dual British and Australian citizenship, was sworn in on Friday. Another Australian, John Byrne, took office on Monday.

Their return to the bench comes six weeks after President Josefa Iloilo abrogated the Constitution both judges had sworn to uphold.

The new judges have been appointed under a presidential decree that has been criticised for offering weak guarantees of judicial independence.

Their appointments coincide with a radical change in the regulation of Fiji’s lawyers, the Law Society being stripped of its power to deal with complaints and issue practising certificates.

That change was accompanied by a weekend raid on the Law Society’s offices and the removal of all complaint files concerning Fiji’s lawyers.

The raid was carried out personally by the recently appointed chief registrar of the Fiji High Court, Major Ana Rokomokoti, who has extensive powers under the new arrangements.

The chief registrar has responsibility for issuing new practising certificates and for accepting all fresh complaints about lawyers.

Two hours after Saturday’s raid, Law Society vice-president Laurel Vaurasi emailed society members and said the incident had “dire implications”.

It had effectively terminated the core functions of the Law Society, Ms Vaurasi wrote.

Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum issued a statement saying all practising certificates would expire on June 30 and lawyers would need to apply to the chief registrar for new certificates. He said the Fiji Law Society would continue to exist and was not defunct, but membership would now be voluntary.

Mr Sayed-Khaiyum said that under the new arrangements, the chief registrar would also receive all complaints about lawyers and pass them on to a new legal services commission, modelled on the legal services commissions of NSW and Queensland.

Law Society president Dorsami Naidu said the society did not support the decision of the dismissed judges to return to the bench.

“The abrogation of the Constitution is unlawful and any judicial officer taking an oath under the new decree is not on,” Mr Naidu said.

“We do not want to be a party to it.”

But he drew a distinction between opposing the appointment of the new judges and the question of whether lawyers should refuse to appear before them in court.

“We are out there to protect the interests of the public however unpalatable that may be, Mr Naidu said.

“We have to look at the liberty of the citizen. For the rule of law, in whatever form it is, we have to maintain some degree or semblance of the rule of law.

“People need representation. The system must go on.”

Law Council of Australia spokesman Gordon Hughes, who is chairman of the council’s international law section, said although the removal of the Law Society’s power to issue practising certificates might not appear sinister, there were other issues at stake.

“The question is whether the profession can trust the integrity of the process that has been put in place,” Dr Hughes said.

“The concern is that, given that the Government has in the past shown a propensity to interfere with the administration of justice, and had been antagonistic towards the Law Society and its members, it might use its appointee to remove certain individuals from practice.”


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