Kiribati, a small Pacific nation is faced with a very big judicial crisis and its judiciary’s independence has been questioned.
Last week, the President of Kiribati Taneti Maamau suspended the chief justice William Hastings as he set out to hear a matter filed by a high court judge who was suspended in May.
This has led to a mounting backlog of cases and no judges to hear matters in the high court.
David Lambourne was suspended in May and he had filed a constitutional challenge. Mr Lambourne’s suspension according to the Kiribati Government was because of complaints received by the public about his inability to hear and discharge cases on time.
The Kiribati Government has already stated that an independent tribunal has been set up to look into allegations against Mr Lambourne. Allegations which may be politically motivated.
Mr Hastings ruled that the government’s actions were unconstitutional and ordered it to facilitate Mr Lambourne’s return.
An appeal by the Kiribati Government is due to be heard by the court of appeal, a body consisting of three retired New Zealand judges, later this month.
However, last week Mr Hastings was suspended as he set out to hear additional challenges against the Kiribati Government.
According to a Kiribati Government statement, Justice Hastings was suspended because of an article he had written which clearly showed that he heard the case without being impartial, and with a preconceived mindset that Kiribati’s judiciary was under attack.
In May, after the suspension of Mr Lambourne, Commonwealth based legal bodies the Commonwealth Magistrates’ and Judges’ Association, Commonwealth Legal Education Association and Commonwealth Lawyers Association issued a joint statement questioning the integrity of the complaint and lack of transparency by the Kiribati Government.
The statement did not go down well with the Kiribati Government.
Both the position of a high court judge and the chief justice of Kiribati have been advertised by the Kiribati Government.
And while there seems to be no rush to fill in the positions, the backlog from the absence of the judicial officers keeps on mounting.
Some 20 magistrates courts, composed of seven magistrates and a clerk, deal with less-serious civil, criminal, and land cases on a district basis.
The High Court hears more serious civil and criminal cases referred to it by the magistrates courts, and also hears appeals from the lower court.
Appeals relating to land, divorce, and inheritance are dealt with by the High Court’s land division.
Prior to 2014 there was only one High Court judge, but in that year a second judge was appointed. The Chief Justice of Kiribati is the Head of the Judiciary in Kiribati.