Overhaul justice dept

Editorial, Normal

The National

THE principal legal adviser to the Prime Minister and the National Executive Council, Attorney-General and Justice Minister Dr Allan Marat is at war with his own principal adviser, the secretary of the Department of Justice and Attorney-General.
Secretary Hitelai Polume-Kiele, first suspended and then terminated the employment of acting Solicitor-General Neville Devete and acting Deputy Solicitor-General Laias Kandi.
Dr Marat, upon reviewing the circumstances, then used his powers to rescind the termination and reinstated the two.
Ms Polume-Kiele took legal action claiming the minister had acted beyond his powers which the National Court rejected. She presently is appealing that decision in the Supreme Court.
While this is happening, the State is losing court cases by the dozen or is having important cases deferred for lack of State lawyers to defend them, so much so that senior judges in the likes of Justices Bernard Sakora, Mark Sevua and Ambeng Kandakasi have repeatedly lambasted the chaotic state of affairs at the office of Solicitor-General and the Department of Justice and Attorney-General.
At least one State lawyer was jailed as a result and Ms Polume-Kiele has been summoned to explain why there was a persistent absenteeism by State lawyers.
This is not the first time this department has been in this situation. For some time now, the department has been in a constant state of chaos – whether it has had to do with staff movements or renewal or  with controversial legal settlements.
Its financial records and books, including those of instrumentalities under its jurisdiction such as the Office of the Public Curator, are in total disarray as evidenced by reports of both the Auditor-General and that of the Permanent Parliamentary Committee on Public Accounts.
Reporting on the accounts of the Public Curator, the Auditor-General wrote recently: “I have also found evidence of interference in the management and financial operation of the Public Curator’s Office by the Department of Justice and Attorney-General. This interference has added to the problems faced by the Public Curator. I am also of the opinion that the secretary of Justice and Attorney-General has failed to ensure that the Public Curator has been provided sufficient support to effectively meet its responsibilities, especially in regard to financial and staff resources. In fact, there is evidence that the department has made use of funds held in trust by the Public Curator on behalf of deceased estates for its own operational expenditure.”
Much of the devious and fraudulent out of court settlements running into hundreds of millions of kina, currently the subject of a commission of inquiry into Finance Department originated from the Department of Justice and Attorney-General.
Even legitimate cases won by claimants against the State could easily have been defended instead of running into hundreds of millions of kina.
Paul Paraka Lawyers, acting on matters briefed out to it by the Department of Justice and Attorney-General, stopped payment in cases against the State amounting to K1.2 billion.
That is the amount of money Justice and Attorney-General had let slip and the money would have been paid if it were not for the private law firm.
Politics and the inquiry into Finance stopped much more from being done by the law firm. Regardless, other law firms are undertaking the massive task of trying to recover for the State millions of kina which has been lost because the department charged with protecting the State in legal matters just does not seem to have the capacity, the staff or the wherewithal to do it.
It is a shame and utterly disgraceful. If there is a department that needs overhauling, it is this.
The entire machinery of Government operates on the order dictated by legal principles. The Department of Justice and Attorney-General is the custodian of those legal principles to advise the Government on all matters legal and to defend the State.
The secretary for Justice Department and Attorney-General is the Government’s principal legal adviser. That does not preclude Government departments or agencies from seeking legal advice elsewhere but all such advice must then be vetted by the Attorney-General.
This makes the department the most important in ensuring that all conduct by the Government and its instrumentalities are transacted fairly, diligently, competently and within the requirements of laws and due process.
If Government is found to be at fault on matters of law the blame, first and foremost, must be laid squarely at the Attorney-General and the secretary for Justice and Attorney-General.