31 Jul 2013

Bougainville leader believes compensation demands will be sorted

5:22 pm on 31 July 2013

Nauru is struggling to cope with the challenge presented to the court system by the number of criminal proceedings that have followed the riot at the asylum seekers' camp base there.

At least 150 people were involved in the disturbances and fire at the Australian-set up Regional Proacessing Centre that caused an estimated at US$55 million damage.

The Chief Justice in Nauru, Geoffrey Eames, says discussions will have to be held with Australia over the costs involved and how to deal with this number of cases, given the limit number of legal professionals, holding cells and just one courtroom.

Justice Eames told Philippa Tolley the more than 100 people facing charges would at first be represented by so-called 'pleaders' with 12 months training.

GEOFFREY EAMES: They will be, at the moment, being handled by Nauru practitioners, but also there's a couple of Australian lawyers who have offered pro bono services. That's fine for the few cases that are ready to be heard at the moment, but when it comes to the bulk of the cases arising out of the most recent disturbance, that's plainly going to require a lot more resources than just the half dozen or so practitioners in Nauru. So for that group there's obviously a serious gap in the resources, and whether they are provided by pro bono assistance or whether governments provide financial support to allow representation is a matter which hasn't been resolved as yet and is plainly going to have to be discussed at high levels.

PHILIPPA TOLLEY: Presumably, these people also are without funds to pay for any representation. Does Nauru have any sort of legal aid that can be extended to these people?

GE: As a result of representations by the court, Nauru has put aside a small fund for legal aid that will primarily be used for the 'pleaders' and lawyers of Nauru, rather than for foreign practitioners. But it's not a large sum and it has to be understood that Nauru is not a wealthy country. It's plain that if people are to come to provide representation from overseas then there's very great costs of accommodation and airfares and matters of that sort. And I think it's highly unlikely that Nauru, from its budget, could cope with that. It's plain that assistance is going to have to come from some other sources.

PT: These people are there in Nauru under arrangements with the Australian government. Is it really something that the Australian government should be stepping up to provide, this sort of back-up, given the situation comes because of agreements of a way to deal with this issue with these asylum seekers?

GE: I haven't had the opportunity to consult with the ministers and relevant government bodies in Nauru. And, as yet, I'm not in a position to know what discussions they've had with the Australian government. But it seems to me pretty obvious that the Nauru government couldn't be expected to cope with this, and the Australian government would seem to be an obvious avenue for resources. These are matters which have to be dealt with in our constitution both fairly and expeditiously. And if that's to occur then much greater resources will be required than is currently available.

PT: You talk about timing of dealing with these situations. Do you think there is a sense of urgency perhaps in resolving this if you're talking about inter-governmental because these people are, I suppose, waiting for the greater question of their asylum position to be resolved.

GE: There's huge urgency to deal with it. Apart of anything else, as a result of the fires, people have got no accommodation, so they're back in tents. And people who've been refused bail are in a dreadfully overcrowded situation in the prison or the police cells. It's a situation which screams for an urgent response on all sides, but we have to be careful that urgency and expedition doesn't replace fairness. And we're very conscious of the fact that we can't allow the matters just to drag on without getting some sort of system in place. And I might say the resources which will be required will not just be for defence counsel. There's only one prosecutor in Nauru, and I'd be very surprised if they don't find that there's a need to bolster their resources, as well.

PT: Can you see matters being transferred off Nauru altogether? May that be a more practical solution?

GE: That's one of the issues which I wouldn't speculate on at the moment. There's plainly a whole range of considerations which would be relevant to be discussed in this context, and as soon as I can get to Nauru I hope I can start those discussions and get some idea as to what the options are. But, yes, of course that's one option which might be considered.