‘People are suffering’: Kiribati’s judicial crisis


The opposition in Kiribati wants answers from the government about the ongoing crisis in the country’s judiciary.

The government last year dismissed the chief justice and three Court of Appeal judges – all New Zealanders – while earlier it had tried to remove High Court judge, Australian David Lambourne.

Opposition MP and the country’s first president Sir Ieremia Tabai said the public remains unaware of how the government has treated the judges.

He said the Court of Appeal judges had threatened the government with contempt of court charges over its continued refusal to offer Lambourne a visa.

Sir Ieremia said the judges sent a letter detailing this on 01 September last year.

“The letter says that if David Lambourne wasn’t given his visa by the end of the day then they are going to take the matter to the courts for contempt of court. So what the government did they suspended the judges on the following day.”

He said the government also acted unconstitutionally in not including someone of high judicial office in its tribunal looking into its claims the judges had violated their oaths.

That tribunal is yet to announce its decision while the Court of Appeal has now been without any judges for more than seven months.

Former chief justice Bill Hastings resigned late last year, forced out by similar actions.

The government’s attorney general, Tetiro Semilota, was appointed acting chief justice; while her former role remains vacant.

Kiribati journalist Rimon Rimon said there is a mounting number of court cases, with only Justice Semilota hearing cases, aided by a court commissioner, for the 119,000 people who live in the country according to official figures.

He said with the other courts out of action, the people are being denied justice.

“While the tug of war goes on between the executive and judicial arm of government, the people are suffering with mounting cases because the court is not functioning,” Rimon said.

“At the moment we have an acting chief justice. What we don’t know is who is our attorney-general,” he said.

Rimon said the government has not indicated when it will be able to resolve the matter, but Sir Ieremia will raise the issues in parliament this month and that will require a public response from the executive.

It is now nearly three years since the Kiribati government first took action against Lambourne, the husband of the Kiribati opposition leader Tessie Lambourne.

The government eventually suspended him and tried to remove him, but he remains in the country with his family, though his skills are not being put to use because he doesn’t have a work visa.