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The Solicitor-General and Chairman of the Legal Aid Commission;
The Acting Director of the Legal Aid Commission;
Ladies and Gentlemen.

Bula Vinaka and a very good afternoon to you all.

It is wonderful to be back in Taveuni, especially to welcome such important developments to your island, these new Legal Aid and Births, Deaths Marriages offices.

This has been an historic week for the realisation of the right to justice for our people. Two days ago, I was in the interior of Viti Levu, in Keyasi, opening a new Legal Aid office. Yesterday I was on Vanua Levu, opening a new Legal Aid office in Seaqaqa. And today, I am privileged to be doing the same here in Taveuni.

Each of the openings this week has made me extremely proud, but the opening of this office on Taveuni is particularly special. This is the first Legal Aid office ever opened on the island of Taveuni. While other communities in Fiji certainly faced long journeys by car or by bus to access legal services, the geographic challenges Fijians in Taveuni faced in accessing legal aid services were even mightier, as you were forced to travel by boat to Suva or Labasa in order to access these important services. But today, the obstacles you faced have been knocked to the ground. You can now wield the tremendous power of the law more easily than ever before for the benefit of yourselves and your families. To drive that point home, I’d like to share with you a story I told in Seaqaqa yesertday.

Some of you may have seen the headlines in August of last year from a horrific event in Nabou in Viti Levu, where eight lives were lost in a road accident.

It was a tragedy felt across the country. We all sympathised dearly with all those who suffered the terrible and sudden loss of a loved one, and the memory of that event remains painfully etched in our national consciousness to this day.

In the midst of their unimaginable heartache, the families impacted by that tragedy were left to make sense of a catastrophic and unexpected situation. Some families had lost their bread-winner, someone who they counted on to make ends meet in their household. Others lost children, whose lives each held astonishing promise. It was an incredibly painful time for those Fijian families.

But in the immediate aftermath of that event, families who needed the support were able to turn to the women and men of the Legal Aid Commission to seek the assistance they deserved in their time of suffering. It was the Legal Aid Officers who helped those families with the paperwork and legal documentation to enable them to assume administration over their deceased family members’ estate, allowing them to receive compensation money from the Accident Compensation Commission Fiji. They didn’t need to front the costs of those legal fees themselves. They didn’t need to spend months, or years, in the courts. Instead, they quickly received legal expertise that enabled them to access our recently established Accident Compensation Commission Fiji, which paid out invaluable assistance to those families in their time of need.

Whether you are a family suffering from the loss of a loved one; a family facing eviction; a mother seeking custody of a child; a couple looking to adopt a new member of their family; someone who is facing criminal charges; or someone in their later stages of life who needs to draft a will, the Legal Aid Commission is there to support the Fijian people. Our Legal Aid Officers are a capable and comforting voice of legal expertise, provided free of charge, as well as a source of legal representation for families who qualify for assistance. The provision of these services is not charity, it is a realisation of the constitutional right of every Fijian; the right of equal access to justice.

There’s another story I’d like to share this afternoon. Not so long ago, here on Taveuni, an elderly woman was hospitalised and suffering from a very severe form of cancer. She needed to draft a will, but could not afford a lawyer. So, the Legal Aid Commission dispatched a team to the Taveuni Hospital to draft and execute this woman’s will, so she could leave behind her possessions to her loved ones in the manner she saw fit. That is the level of commitment you can expect from the Legal Aid team that occupies this new office. Today, we’re bringing their services directly to your doorstep, putting you on equal footing with Fijians in our major towns and urban areas. Because every Fijian must be able to access justice in their communities, where they live, work and raise their families. And as of today, you finally can.

At this office, you can obtain advice, free-of-charge, to assist with witnessing documents, such as birth certificates, academic transcripts and so on, dealing with landlord and tenant related issues, drafting wills and helping with probate matters. And with their knowledge and expertise to help guide you, you can all, more easily than ever before, tap the potential of the rule of law to benefit you and your families.

If your family earns less than 15,000 dollars a year, you can also obtain free legal representation in Family and Criminal matters, and even in some civil matters as well.

At this new Legal Aid Office, you will have a lawyer available full-time who will provide free legal services. You will also have a full-time Client Information Officer and Registry Officer to provide first-line legal assistance.

I also want to make clear that juveniles can utilise the services offered at Legal Aid Offices in Fiji free of charge. As a young person, your socio-economic background will not be considered, neither will the socio-economic status of your family. These doors are always open to you, and I encourage young people in need of legal services to take full advantage.

This particular week may be one of historic proportions for the Legal Aid Commission, but our effort is bigger than the three new offices we’ve opened over these past few days. Rotuma, Kadavu and Vunidawa will soon be welcoming new Legal Aid offices of their own, and once we finish work on the office in Levuka, we’ll have 22 branches of the Commission throughout Fiji.

These milestone achievements in expanding access to justice are being made possible by an unprecedented spending commitment from my Government towards the expansion of legal aid, including the 10.4 million dollars allocated in this financial year. On a per capita basis, our financial commitment towards the expansion of legal aid services ranks Fiji as a world leader in funding access to justice. We’re seeing the returns of that world-leading effort. Today, the Legal Aid Commission is Fiji’s largest law firm. Every day it gives more low-income earners in Fiji greater opportunity than ever before to seek legal advice and enjoy the security, assurance and full protection of the law.

That matters, because the law, and access to legal services, are the great equalisers in Fijian society. Thanks to our Fijian Constitution, in our courts there is no favour granted to anyone on the basis of their background, their wealth or their social status. The law views each of us equally. That sacred truth forms the very basis of our common and equal citizenry and our shared identity, as one nation and one people. For that reason, we cannot tolerate financial limitations on access to justice. We cannot tolerate marginalisation in our justice system. If any Fijian needs representation, they must be able to get it. And that is what the women and men employed in this new office are dedicated to delivering for the Fijian people.

I’m also here this afternoon to officially open a new Birth, Deaths and Marriages Registry, bringing another range of important services direct to Taveuni. If you need to register a birth, death or marriage; if you need to print out copies of birth, marriage and death certificates; even if you need to view titles, conduct deeds searches, or register a business, that can now happen directly in your community for the first time ever.

And I encourage all of you to take advantage of being able to register births here in Taveuni, rather than traveling many miles to Labasa or elsewhere to do so. Too often, we see Fijians waiting months, or even years, to register the birth of their children. Many actually wait until it’s necessary for a child to enrol in school. We need to change that mentality. Quickly registering a birth gives Government the data we need to efficiently and effectively allocate our resources. With this data, we are able to better plan and deliver the services that you need. By dragging your feet and preventing an accurate headcount, you are selling yourselves, and your community, short. It’s about more than just data –– having that birth certificate in hand with the name of your child makes them officially, on paper, a Fijian, and a part of our thriving nation. Now, with this office at your convenience, you have no excuse to wait.

Ladies and gentlemen, today is a big day for Taveuni. Today, you become a part of our national development and national life like never before. Today, you are no longer on the sidelines of service delivery, waiting for your moment to enjoy the same level of services found in Viti Levu or in our major towns and cities. Today, your moment has come.

As always, my Government’s commitment to each one of you is unwavering, and we will continue to come to you with the services and infrastructure you need to make life better and to secure an even brighter future.

Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you.

© 2018 Ministry of Communications