The National- Tuesday, January 18, 2011
LUTHER Wenge must accept some blame for the lawlessness along the notorious Lae Miles section of the Highlands Highway.
Vagrants squatting from 2-Mile to 10-Mile often have nothing better to do than to form ethnic groups and fight each other much to the annoyance and inconvenience of law-abiding commuters and business houses located along the highway.
Citing police manpower and logistic shortfalls in Lae, police chief Giossi Labi said that previous eviction attempts of these troublesome squatters by the Morobe provincial administration were thwarted by court injunctions obtained by Wenge on behalf of the squatters.
This was also confirmed by former Morobe provincial administrator Manasupe Zurenuoc.
In rebuttal, Wenge submits that the “law of equity” favours these squatters as long as they have lived for more than 37 years on the land.
If Wenge’s submission relies on adverse possession by the squatters then it is flawed. The land along the highway between 2-Mile and 11-Mile is state land by law (Land Act 1996) and as such is not prone to adverse possession which is an equitable principle; equity follows the law (not the other way around).
The law was pronounced to that effect by the pre-Independence full Supreme Court of Papua & New Guinea in The Administration of Papua & New Guinea v. Blaise Tirupia et al (1971-72) PLGLR 229 and since then successive PNG courts of record have never recognised squatters’ adverse possession over registered title-owners, e.g. Bai v. Morobe provincial government (1992) PNGLR 150 and Koang No.47 Ltd v Mondo Merchants Ltd (2001) SC675.
Reliance on the Land Titles Commission findings of Hides Gas Project land (1993) PNGLR 309 at pp 316-317 to support squatters’ adverse possession of state land is wrong as the Hides Gas land case clearly dealt with Section 67 of the Land Disputes Settlement Act which only applies to customary land; not state land.
Therefore, the Morobe provincial administrator with assistance from police may evict squatters off state land via sections 145 &146 of the Land Act 1996. In fact, section 145(2) of the Land Act 1996 nullifies any defence by squatters raising a “claim of right” by adverse possession or other equitable interests.
Moreover, the state is not legally obliged to resettle squatters following an eviction; the only equitable right the court may grant to squatters is “a reasonable period of time for them to voluntarily vacate or quit the state land” (see Bai v Morobe provincial government (1992) PNGLR 150).
If squatters fail to vacate within the court’s grace period, then lawful eviction may proceed without fear or favour.
Even if Wenge’s reasoning has sound legal basis, I have lived in Lae for 30 years now and I believe 90% of the squatters along the Miles are newcomers who have come along over the last 10 years or so; not many have been here for more than 20 years, let alone 37 years as claimed by Wenge.
Previous eviction attempts stopped simply because the administration did not vigorously contest the court injunctions on points of law familiar to the Morobe provincial administration having done so in Bai v Morobe provincial government (1992) PNGLR 150.
In short, our leaders (as lawyers themselves) know that PNG law supports eviction of squatters from state land, but perhaps it is considered politically incorrect to evict potential voters leading up to an election year.