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Pacifying the Pacific: Law in the Solomon Islands

Pacifying the Pacific: Law in the Solomon Islands

In a forgotten corner of the South Pacific, Australian and local lawyers are working together to restore a collapsed justice system and sustain the rule of law. But chronic underfunding and…

In a forgotten corner of the South Pacific, Australian and local lawyers are working together to restore a collapsed justice system and sustain the rule of law. But chronic underfunding and devastating poverty amongst the lawyers themselves threaten to undo years of hard work. Claire Chaffey reports.

A solitary canoe navigates waters in Western Province, Solomon Islands

Photo: Claire Chaffey

In the late 1990s, the rule of law in the Solomon Islands began to deteriorate. In the beautiful and remote region of Melanesia, simmering ethnic tensions erupted into a bloody conflict between rival militia groups. By the year 2000, an Australian-brokered peace deal brought relative calm but corruption had become systemic, violence and intimidation were the norm, and a total breakdown of law and order was imminent.

In April 2003, with the Solomon Islands on the verge of becoming a failed state, the then Prime Minister, Sir Allan Kemakeza, had no choice but to seek foreign assistance.

In response, the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI), comprising 15 Pacific nations - led by the Australian Government's AusAID arm - made a commitment to restore law and order and to rebuild the conflict crippled nation.

A significant part of RAMSI's strategy was to install expatriate lawyers, known as legal advisors, into the English common law-based public legal sector. These lawyers were tasked with rebuilding the court system and, over the longer term, developing the capacity of Solomon Island lawyers so as to assure the long-term stability and functionality of the justice system.

Now, seven years after RAMSI's arrival, the strategy has been largely successful: the courts are up and running, legal representation is readily available for the vulnerable, and the Solomon Islands' governance is relatively stable.

But despite RAMSI's good intentions, many of the lawyers within the public legal sector are as poor as the people they represent. As such, the longevity of access to justice and the ongoing rule of law are seriously under threat.

Life in the Public Solicitor's Office

Solomon Islands lawyer Wayne Ghemu, left, with the Public Solicitor Douglas Hou

Photo: PSO

The Public Solicitor's Office (PSO) in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, is an agency at the heart of RAMSI's Law and Justice Program. Essentially, it is the legal aid body of the Solomon Islands, providing legal representation to the country's most disadvantaged residents.

But for many of the lawyers working at the PSO, the time they spend in the office is the only time they have a roof over their heads - they are homeless.

The reasons behind the situation are simple: PSO solicitors are poorly paid and the arrival of the RAMSI force saw rental prices skyrocket, squeezing many locals - including many PSO lawyers - out of the rental market and consequently making them homeless.

Unsurprisingly, the flow-on effect is a high turnover of PSO lawyers who already come from a limited talent pool, largely due to lack of educational opportunities. As such, the lawyers who should be the future of the public justice system simply cannot survive long-term under such conditions.

The only realistic option for most lawyers is to train with the PSO and then, after a couple of years, defect to one of the dozen or so private firms in Honiara.

"This office, for local lawyers, is a very challenging place to work," says Australian PSO legal advisor Steve Barlow.

"It would be fair to say they are probably the lowest paid government lawyers in the Pacific and they face acute problems with housing at the moment. There are lawyers in this office with small children who are camping with relatives at dwellings without electricity."

"The time of tensions was a complete breakdown of the system of law and governance, so when RAMSI came,

everything had to be recreated"

Linda McSpedden, legal advisor, PSO

The PSO's staff is a mixture of expatriate and local lawyers who answer to the Solomon Islands' Public Solicitor, Douglas Hou.

The role of the legal advisors is to carry out in-line work, such as running trials in the Magistrate and High Courts, and also to train and develop the capacity of the local lawyers in preparation for the eventual withdrawal of RAMSI.

But according to legal advisor Robert Cavanagh, the dearth of Solomon Island government lawyers - due to the poor pay and conditions which the Solomon Islands' Government is yet to (or unable to) address - poses a real threat to the ongoing stability of law and justice.

"Unless there is a significant increase in the number of Solomon Islands lawyers, and an appropriate, long-term policy developed in terms of legal advisors ... there will not be substantial change," says Cavanagh.

"This place can lapse very quickly back into some form of chaos. It would be clearly appropriate, unless you wish to see a collapse and further decay of the rule of law, that human resources are developed dramatically and consistently."

The head of RAMSI's Law and Justice Program, Tim Vistarini, agrees that the current conditions are a concern and a real threat to the Program's ongoing success, but concedes there is little RAMSI can do about it.

"RAMSI is concerned that pay and conditions for Solomon Islands government lawyers are uncompetitive with the private sector, but it is difficult for us to address this matter directly, as this is the responsibility of the Solomon Islands Government," he says.

"While we can help the sector make a strong case to government for better salary and conditions, in the end, it is a decision of the government what it pays staff."

According to Vistarini, those in the legal sector are not the only ones struggling to make ends meet, and resolving such issues within a near-bankrupt administration is extremely difficult, especially in view of long-term development goals.

"Options such as salary supplementation can fix the problem in the short-term, but will lead to increased long-term dependency of the sector on external funding, and this is a situation we seek to avoid," he says. "Further, donors providing financial support for some positions, and not others, create internal disparities in internal government pay scales. [This] will drag staff from one area to another, effectively robbing Peter to pay Paul."

Tradition, trials and tribulations

Australian legal advisor Linda McSpedden outside the Public Solicitor's Office in Honiara.

Photo: Claire Chaffey

Even in the face of the indignities endured by many of the PSO staff, their commitment to the job is unwavering. Under the watchful eye of the legal advisors, up-and-coming Solomon Island lawyers are, amongst other things, running trials in the High Court - with many of them relating to murders committed during the period of civil conflict.

Known as the "tension trials", some matters date back more than ten years, when the collapsed justice system meant that perpetrators remained unpunished.

"The time of tensions was a complete breakdown of the system of law and governance, so when RAMSI came, everything had to be recreated," says Australian legal advisor Linda McSpedden.

"We had to get the police force up and running and crimes had to be detected and investigated, so it took a long time to put cases together. Every case that ran would often disclose further offences by other people, [who] are often difficult to apprehend. It is very easy to get lost in these islands and there are many, many inaccessible regions, so it's a total combination of factors that leaves us, ten years later, still dealing with these crimes."

The PSO also runs matters in the Magistrate's Court - a task usually reserved for the most junior lawyers, such as first-year lawyer Wayne Ghemu. But given a lack of funding and the geographical make-up of the Solomon Islands, which has close to a thousand islands (some of which are so remote that traditional shell currency is still used) and throughout which dwells around 80 per cent of the population, administering common law justice is often extremely difficult, if not impossible.

"The Magistrate's Court is going through a difficult time at the moment. It ordinarily tours the country and sends magistrates out to the provinces, [but] in recent months those tours have stopped, so there is a gridlock in regional provincial justice at the moment," says Barlow.

"This place can lapse very quickly back into some form of chaos. It would be clearly appropriate, unless you wish to see a collapse and further decay of the rule of law, that human resources are developed dramatically and consistently"

Robert Cavanagh, legal advisor, PSO

Cultural tradition, however, ensures that regional justice is not entirely obsolete, and the Local Courts Act gives village chiefs the power to administer justice in both civil and criminal matters.

"For people in the Western Province, for example, there are three police stations. They have fixed and regular patrols to the villages, but they rely mostly on people coming out and reporting criminal offences," says Anderson Kesaka, a Solomon Island lawyer at the PSO.

"Otherwise, village chiefs have power to preside over criminal matters, mostly petty offences. They can award fines ... [and] order compensation on the basis of natural justice."

The PSO also has a civil section dealing mostly with domestic and apprehended violence, and matrimonial issues, as well as a separate arm devoted to land rights issues, known as the Landowners Advocacy and Legal Services Unit (LALSU), which campaigns for aggrieved landowners and informs them of their rights. But sadly, LALSU is also experiencing difficulties.

"We have a large number of people with huge problems relating to land rights and the intrusion of logging on their land," says McSpedden.

"Until this month, LALSU had funding from the EU, but sadly that has been discontinued."

Working for the future

Gizo, in Western Province, Solomon Islands

Photo: Claire Chaffey

Speaking with the legal advisors, it is clear that working at the PSO is a task not suited to everyone: the poverty can be confronting, the work is complex and difficult, and the constant strain on resources facing the staff can be costly. But it is also clear that the input of RAMSI - and legal advisors such as Cavanagh, Barlow and McSpedden - has restored to order a justice system on the brink of total collapse.

"I think the overarching achievement is that RAMSI has been able, in partnership with Solomon Islanders, to create a stable and secure environment in which the Solomon Islands justice system is now able to operate safely, free from violence and intimidation. And this was achieved in a comparatively short amount of time for a post-conflict society," says Vistarini.

Acutely aware of this are Kesaka and Ghemu, who are grateful for the opportunity provided by the Law and Justice Program, but deeply concerned about what might happen if ongoing support from RAMSI and the legal advisors is withdrawn.

"We are very young lawyers. We have very little experience," says Kesaka.

"Within the next five years, the [legal] agencies will need the continuous support of the advisors ... because the [Solomon Islands] Government does not have the capacity to make sure that lawyers who come into this agency want to stay. There has to be some [action] by the government in order to retain local lawyers, to make sure that the support of the advisors continues so that young lawyers get educated and get the experience."

According to Vistarini, there are plans in place to ensure the longevity of the program, with negotiations for a ten-year commitment in the pipeline. And, until the funding issues are resolved, the dedicated legal advisors will continue to carry out their mandate; a task which thus far has proved to be a life changing experience.

"It is a very great privilege to work in the PSO and with my colleagues," says Cavanagh. "They are an incredible, positive lot of people who will have great careers, but they need assistance."

McSpedden and Barlow agree, and add that their satisfaction goes beyond the professional realm. "Working here is very fulfilling professionally, but living here, and what I get out of life here, goes beyond that," says Barlow.

"Coming here is an amazing opportunity, not just for work, but for the overall development of who I am. When I leave the Solomon Islands, the thing that will stay with me forever is not so much the job I have done, but the people I have met through that job, whether it be my colleagues, my clients or others in the community. It's an incredible country and it is deserving of people being interested in it. It is fascinating to come here and be a part of the place."

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