Recent attacks on Gadens Lawyers' staff in Papua New Guinea (PNG) may cause lawyers to rethink any plans to redeploy to the vibrant, yet dangerous jurisdiction, writes Ben Abbott
On the surface, Papua New Guinea may look like a golden opportunity for lawyers pursuing international experience. Richly endowed with natural resources, the jurisdiction is yielding the most challenging work in the Pacific Islands - and is a far cry from the well-trodden streets of London.
However, those with experience on the ground in the nation's capital, Port Moresby, are warning lawyers that they should think carefully about their own safety before making the move to the Pacific. "It's not all cocktails under the coconut tree," Blake Dawson PNG specialist and partner Richard Flynn says.
This has become clearer in recent weeks, after Gadens' Port Moresby partners and some junior legal staff were placed under 24-hour guard due to ongoing fears of being attacked. Allegedly linked with a case the firm was prosecuting for major banking client Bank South Pacific (BSP), junior local lawyers had been threatened and attacked by men with guns, eventually forcing the firm to withdraw from representing BSP.
The worrying incidents have been linked to the influence of former PNG MP Peter Yama, whose company was the target of BSP's efforts to recover 7.6 million kina ($3 million) in debts. The firm's partner Erik Anderson was also arrested late last year and is being investigated by police in regard to the same case, at Yama's urging.
Talking to Lawyers Weekly, Gadens' Port Moresby partner Winifred Kamit called these recent incidents a "matter of national importance", because of the seriousness with which the business community would look at violence against their staff, and the possibility of law enforcement corruption in PNG.
Gadens is no stranger to violent circumstances. Erik Andersen, who is from New Zealand, was attacked in a Port Moresby nightclub in 2004, and had to be airlifted to Australia with head injuries. This attack was also linked to a case he was involved in at the time.
Blake Dawson's Richard Flynn is close to the jurisdiction, currently representing the financiers involved in ExxonMobil's PNG LNG project. Having previously worked in Port Moresby, Flynn says the current circumstances are "an exception" and "are not the norm for the legal profession in PNG".
However, he says his firm would take the circumstances seriously. "They (the incidents) evidence a significant breakdown in normal government processes. The fact that thugs and members of the police force can be organised to put pressure on lawyers is of major concern to PNG," he says.
Flynn says banking clients, likewise, would regard the situation as exceptional, and would be unlikely to do any rethinking about the jurisdiction: "The banks themselves are dealing with this more often than the legal profession." He cites instances of kidnapping and extortion of bank officers during the past four years, not linked with the current matter, which threaten to put PNG into a basket with South America, where "extortion is a way of life".
Indeed, two Australian executives at BSP were recently placed under investigation, along with Andersen, in connection with the case against Yama's company, after Yama accused the bank of trying to defraud him.
Kamit says while the business community has remained resilient because of the great opportunities available, it has had to be in a position to spend money to protect itself in more recent times.
Though PNG's legal system may be "riddled with imperfections", according to Flynn, what comes with that are rewarding and challenging professional opportunities and a vibrant commercial sector. "PNG's legal and commercial world is larger and more complex than other pacific countries," he says.
Kamit agrees. "In terms of legal exposure, the kinds of work we do mean it is an ideal base for any lawyer to have an overseas experience." She points to the jurisdiction's resource boom, with large projects going ahead or slated, such as Exxon's headline LNG project. "These are things young lawyers would want to get their teeth into."
PLN Lawyers' managing partner John Ridgeway also says PNG has the scale that other places in the region don't have.
PNG is now considered to be in "the more dangerous" category, Flynn says. Other hot spots in the region include Indonesia, as well as the Solomon Islands and Fiji, where threats were made against local members of the legal profession following the recent coup.
Kamit laments the fact that foreign nationals will not be able to experience the same social freedoms as in their home countries when choosing PNG for an international stint, referring to concerns about everyday safety in Port Moresby. "It is a loss to PNG in terms of providing that opportunity as a destination," she says.
But the more positive Ridgeway believes recent incidents should not be seen as indicative of danger in the PNG capital. Ridgeway says the firm sends lawyers to PNG and other islands, and that it was likely to have "more problems in the Sydney CBD than in that part of the world."