Kiribati government labels NZ judges as ‘very biased’, as crisis deepens


Three New Zealand judges have been branded “very biased” by the Kiribati government, after a dramatic attempt to deport a fellow judge failed.

In July, Kiribati suspended Judge Bill Hastings, a New Zealand judge appointed as chief judge of Kiribati’s High Court, after Hastings ruled in favour of another High Court judge, David Lambourne, who the government refused to allow back into the country.

The government then attempted to forcibly deport Lambourne, as it was appealing the ruling, and claimed without evidence the judge was a risk to national security.

But Hastings’ ruling was on Friday upheld by Kiribati’s Court of Appeal, which is staffed by three retired New Zealand judges. The court also ordered the government withdraw deportation orders placed on Australian-born Lambourne.

The conflict between Kiribati’s government and its judiciary has escalated alongside broader tensions between Pacific countries and Kiribati, which has withdrawn from the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) and controversially forged closer relations with China.

Dr Tess Newton Cain, a Pacific politics expert at Griffith University in Queensland, said the Kiribati government appeared to want to remove the influence of foreign judges, despite people in Kiribati generally feeling “well-served” by the judiciary.

She said the judiciary was being “eroded and diluted”, and the Kiribati High Court was now unable to perform its job.

“What we’ve seen across the Pacific, in a number of cases exacerbated by Covid, is a general retreat from democracy, and an increase in more sort of authoritarian ways of doing things.”

Newton Cain said there was a “political aspect” to the government’s actions. Lambourne believed the government was trying to force his wife, opposition leader Tessie Lambourne, out of politics.

“She’s been very critical of the current Kiribati government, including but not limited to their deepening relationship with China,” Newton Cain said.

“My speculation is that this would not have been instigated by Chinese officials, but neither would they be actively discouraging it.”

In their ruling, the appeal judges Peter Blanchard, Rodney Hansen, QC, and Paul Heath, said Hastings was right to determine that Lambourne’s 2018 appointment as a judge was not time-limited.

The government had in 2021 required Lambourne to sign a three-year contract in order to re-enter the country. Lambourne has been a resident of Kiribati since 1995.

The judges ruled Lambourne’s passport should be returned to him, and he should be released from bail conditions, as the two deportation notices served on him were invalid.

Before the appeal could be heard, on 11 August, Kiribati officials attempted to abandon the court case and deport Lambourne. The judge was taken to the airport and, despite an urgent court ruling ordering the deportation be stopped, officials attempted to board him on a plane.

The airline staff refused to accept Lambourne on the plane, and he was detained in a motel for a day.

At the hearing, Kiribati’s lawyer described Hastings’ ruling as a “judicial coup” intended to “reduce the power” of the government, according to the judgement.
The judges said the lawyer indicated they would be deemed “complicit” in the claimed coup, and could be similarly suspended, if they did not overturn the ruling.

“[The] attempt to characterise the behaviour of the two High Court judges as fraudulent in relation to the proceedings is quite hopeless and we reject it,” the ruling said.

Despite the court finding, both Lambourne and Hastings remain suspended, after the government earlier in the year set up tribunals to investigate them for unspecified allegations of “serious misconduct”.

The office of President Taneti Maamau, in a statement, called the ruling “very biased and one-sided” but said the independence of the judiciary would be respected.

“It is especially concerning to see how these foreign judges have intentionally misstated facts and the law when making a decision on a case that is so important to the people of Kiribati.”

A spokesman declined to answer questions when contacted on Monday.

Hastings’ lawyer, former attorney-general Chris Finlayson, QC, confirmed his client remained suspended but declined to comment further.

The New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) has been contacted for comment.

The ruling also noted that two of the appeal judges warrants would expire on 15 August, and a fourth judge that had been appointed had not been sworn in “despite numerous requests since December 2021” .