22 Mar 2012

Outcry over PNG's Judicial Conduct law

5:59 pm on 22 March 2012

Concern is gowing in Papua New Guinea over a new law that empowers the government to suspend judges.

The unprecedented law, which is retrospective to November 1 last year, comes amid an ongoing dispute between the government and the Chief Justice Sir Salamo Injia.

The government of Peter O'Neill has made several attempts to have Sir Salamo suspended while he has been presiding over key cases on the constitutionality of the government.

Those cases are still pending.

Johnny Blades reports:

PNG's parliament, dominated by the supporters of Prime Minister Peter O'Neill's government, passed the Judicial Conduct Bill by 63 votes to 7 less then a day after it was introduced.

The former Chief Justice, Sir Arnold Amet, has instructed his legal counsel to file a constitutional challenge against the Judicial Conduct law.

Sir Arnold, who is the Attorney General in the Somare grouping which also claims to be PNG's legitimate government, says the law is a dangerous precedent, compromising the independence of the judiciary.

"What the parliament has decided is that as a result of recent applications by this rogue regime to disqualify the Chief Justice, that if a judge refuses to disqualify him or himself then parliament may deem that to be a failure on his part and move a motion to refer the judge to the Head of State for investigation which is utter nonsense, ridiculous. There is a judicial process."

The Attorney General, Dr Allan Marat, says the law will promote the integrity of the legal system based on the principle of an independent, fair and competent judiciary.

But Sir Arnold says the law is an abuse of the system.

And as lawyers and jurors know, retrospective legislation are very rare and they're designed to correct mistakes but not designed to be abusive, to bring sanctions on an action that at the time was not wrong. So what has happened here is it is specifically designed to attack the Chief Justice.

While Sir Arnold was not allowed to debate this bill by the Speaker Sir Jeffery Nape, one of the MPs who did was opposition leader Dame Carol Kidu.

She says whether the bench has acted improperly or not is something that can be determined without resorting to this law change.

And if it's felt that there needs to be something more stringent thing for the bench because of its real importance in terms of integrity and transparency, we'll find some other mechanism. But don't make parliamentarians the scrutineers of the judiciary. It concerns me. I ask myself, in general who would I trust more, the judges on the bench or the parliamentarians? In general I would say I trust the judges more.

Dr Ray Anere of the National Research Institute says it remains to be seen whether the independence of the judiciary can be maintained following this legislation.

But there have been streams of public comments and opinion, particularly on the fear that the legislation amounts to executive dictatorship... I see all of these things - the conduct of the Speaker, the conduct of the executive government and the passage of the legislation - all have a common element which is to strengthen the hold on to power by the current executive government.

Meanwhile, commentators expect the government will move quickly to oust Sir Salamo.