Prime Minister and Minister for Finance, Strategic Planning, National Development and Statistics, Public Service, Peoples Charter for Change and Progress, Information, iTaukei Affairs, Provincial Development, Sugar Industry, and Lands and Mineral Resources


Intercontinental Resort, Natadola Fri. 7th December 2011

Honourable Chief Justice,

Members of the Judiciary,

Attorney General,

Your Excellencies, Members of the Diplomatic Corps,

Acting Solicitor General,

Legal Practitioners,

Invited guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen.

Bula vinaka and a very good morning to you.

It gives me great pleasure to be with you at this 14th Attorney General’s Conference.

The delivery of substantive justice to the Fijian people has been a key priority of my Government. It is our goal to make sure that we establish and nurture a Fiji in which justice is actual and permanent- not only legal justice, but social justice, economic justice - justice that establishes a common and equal citizenry in all aspects of life. Citizens from all walks of life want justice. They expect it from all of us - whether one is a lawmaker, a civil servant, a judge, or a lawyer.

When justice is not delivered – or not seen to be delivered - society at large, or sections of it, or individuals, get disenchanted and lose confidence in the system. They disengage. Disengagement leads to a lack of respect for the justice system and the law at large. It leads to corruption. It undermines the entire edifice of a just and equitable society. It is therefore imperative that those who hold offices that are created to ensure justice, do exactly that - without fear, favour or discrimination.

When I spoke to you five years ago, I was critical of the legal profession in our country. I believed that the profession had become arrogant, sloppy and corrupt, that it had lost its moral compass. I challenged the profession that as officers of the court, you must zealously adhere to high ethical and professional conduct.

This is why we have strengthened professional standards for the legal profession and protected common people against unscrupulous practices by some lawyers. I know that the move from peer review to an independent adjudication process was perhaps uncomfortable for some. But set against international best practice, the legal profession in Fiji was neither progressive nor accountable.

The establishment of the Independent Legal Services Commission – based on an Australian hybrid model - has been successful in not only raising professional standards, but in raising the ordinary Fijian’s confidence and trust in the legal profession as a whole. This new-found confidence and trust ultimately benefits every legal practitioner.

The judiciary also has a special place in the justice system. It exists to ensure that everyone is equal before the law, that cases are tried with fairness and impartiality, and that the rights of all parties are protected.

This is an enormous responsibility, and it requires a judiciary of great maturity and discretion. It requires a judiciary that is not influenced by the flavour of the month or the politics of the day. Nor for that matter, by the flavour of foreign missions in our country.

Ladies and gentlemen, there was and still is an urgent need to modernise the laws of our country to clear up long-festering problems in our society. You are familiar with some of these problems which are:

The entrenched privilege of career politicians who used the legislature to foster division and inequality.
The entrenched privilege of elites who believe that the law need not apply to them.
The entrenched privilege of dishonest civil servants who take money and other inducements to do the bidding of others.
The entrenched privilege of certain unionists who manipulate the law for their personal benefit to ultimately destroy jobs, and job opportunities, for Fijian workers, and,
The entrenched privilege of men who resist equal rights for women.
Since I last spoke to you - five years ago - my Government has carried out a number of significant legal changes under our agenda to reform and modernise Fiji. We made the changes that were needed but were never made. These changes were necessary not only to bring us into the 21st century but to position us for a future as a modern nation state. These reforms are recognised domestically and in the international arena.

When laws uphold the equality of all citizens; when laws are carefully and thoughtfully designed to take into account the Fijian context and the realities on the ground; when laws comply with international standards and best practice, they improve the quality of life for all Fijians and improve our stature as a global citizen.

So we have established greater access to justice for women. We have ensured gender equality through new laws. For example, the removal of archaic rules requiring corroboration in rape trials; recognising the property rights of those living in “de facto” relationships; stopping the marriage of our female children; and the introduction of a new legal regime that addresses the abhorrent practice of domestic violence.

Thanks to the Domestic Violence Decree, women now have greater protection from domestic violence. The law clarifies the responsibilities of the police and allows for restraining orders and other measures to protect women from abusive partners.

Domestic violence not only impacts on the victim and her family, including children. It also has wider implications. For example, if a woman has been subjected to physical violence in her home, she cannot be expected to come into work the next day and contribute productively.

Some have recently pointed to increased reports of domestic violence as a failure on the part of authorities to protect women. I would contend that reports could have increased because now more women are reporting abuse because they feel protected and supported by the new laws.

We have also, for the first time in Fiji’s history, provided for the care, treatment, management, rehabilitation and protection of people with mental illness in the Mental Health Decree. Finally, mental health care services are available to the population equitably and efficiently.

And the Child Welfare Decree has modernised child welfare laws.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We also needed modern and relevant laws to create greater efficiency, to allow for growth in our economy, and to reform agencies and institutions that were crippled by mismanagement, self interest, corruption and lack of expertise.

The Essential National Industries Decree was critical to building an economy that creates opportunity. The debilitating and unreasonable demands of certain unionists were crippling some of our industries.

For example, since the decree was passed, our national carrier, Air Pacific – soon to be Fiji Airways - has been saved from the brink of collapse. It is getting new planes, new branding and more importantly, not a single job as been lost. On the contrary, the employees now get to share in the profits of the company and Fiji Airways will create more jobs next year.

We have also ensured the continuity of the Fiji National Provident Fund for you and your children’s benefit. Had we not instituted the reforms, the FNPF would have gone bankrupt by 2052. So for example, if you are 25-years old now, in 40 years time, there would not have been any money in the FNPF for your pension, even though you would have contributed towards it for your entire working life. Had these reforms not been implemented, we would have betrayed all those Fijians who expect to retire with dignity. The International Social Security Organisation recently commended these significant reforms.

And soon, ladies and gentlemen, a new Companies Decree will be introduced, under which all companies will be required to register in the New Year. This decree will bring Fiji’s laws in step with international best practice, including necessary changes to the fiduciary duties of a company director.

But it is not only modern and reforming laws that Fiji needs. Because it does not matter what the laws are, if all Fijians don’t have equal access to justice.

That is why my Government wants to make it easier for ordinary Fijians to have legal services and legal protection.

So we are committed to establishing Legal Aid offices throughout the country to provide improved legal services to Fijians who otherwise would not have access to them. In fact, I had the pleasure of recently opening two new offices in Nadi and Rakiraki.

Next year, new funding has been allocated for court sittings in rural and outer-island communities, which will reduce the isolation of our fellow Fijians in remote areas. They cannot always travel to the court, so the court needs to travel to them.

Ladies and gentlemen;

Distinguished guests;

By taking care of some of the fundamental issues that have held Fiji back, we are now better prepared to look to the future. The pinnacle of these reforms will be a new constitution that will be based on unassailable, universally accepted principles and values.

The Constitutional Commission has traveled the length and breadth of Fiji to receive submissions from Fijians on their views of what should be included in the constitution. The Commission accepted submissions across the spectrum, from large organisations and political parties through to the most humble Fijian citizen. Through this process, we note that the views and opinions of Fijians who have been marginalised or sidelined in the past, have been given a voice.

Once completed, the draft constitution will be submitted to the President, who will then refer it to the Constituent Assembly to review and make any amendments it believes are appropriate.

The Constituent Assembly will consist of the broadest possible cross-section of Fijian society, as set out in the relevant decree. But to qualify as members of the Constituent Assembly, individuals and organisations will need to demonstrate that they represent a significant constituency in the country. They must also be guided by a commitment to the interests of the nation and the Fijian people as a whole.

For we cannot again allow a narrow band of elite to determine our future. We have already had a handful of men determine what our constitution would be after independence, we have already had the 1990 constitution imposed with almost no consultation at all, and we have already had the key recommendations of the Reeves Commission overturned by a joint parliamentary select committee. This will not happen again.

I hope and believe that the new Constitution will put us on the path to sustainable parliamentary democracy.

In that parliamentary democracy, we will need members of our legal community to play their part, serve the Fijian people and uphold the highest professional standards.

The topics selected for this conference will help stimulate discussion on a number of key areas of reform. Among these are inter-country adoption of children, land registration systems, new company laws, the Independent Legal Services Commission, court procedures and practices and, of course, constitution and constitutionalism.

I wish you an enjoyable and productive conference and now have great pleasure in declaring the 14th Attorney General’s Conference open.

Vinaka vakalevu and thank you.