Australia-born judge facing potential deportation from Kiribati

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Kiribati justice
Kiribati justice . . . the government reconfigured a tribunal and it quickly produced a report which politicians will shortly discuss. Image: 123rf/RNZ

By Don Wiseman, RNZ Pacific senior journalist

An Australian-born judge in Kiribati could well face deportation later this week after a tribunal ruling that he should be removed from his post.

The tribunal’s report has just been tabled in the Kiribati Parliament and is due to be debated by MPs this week — the last week of the current parliamentary session ahead of the general election.

The Kiribati judiciary has been in turmoil for nearly four years now, with key judges removed and huge backlogs in the system.

Historically Kiribati had relied on expatriate judges for its senior courts but the man drawing the government’s ire here is David Lambourne, who, while Australian, has lived in Kiribati for many years, and is married to the current opposition leader, Tessie Lambourne.

What does the case centre on?
There were a number of issues the government raised but the tribunal focused on one in particular and dismissed three others.

It said Lambourne had been remiss in failing to deliver a written decision on a civil court case in 2020.

This delay was at least partly due to covid-19 with Lambourne, in Australia for a judicial conference, unable to get back into Kiribati, which had shut its borders.

When he did get back, he faced myriad accusations, was stood down, and attempts were made to deport him, but a ruling heard by the then chief justice, New Zealand judge Bill Hastings, exonerated him.

An appeal by the government to the Court of Appeal also found in Lambourne’s favour, but the Kiribati government then removed all of those judges.

It should be noted that all of those judges were current or former members of the New Zealand judiciary and are held in high regard.

Where did this tribunal come from?
It was set up by the government in May 2022, but it suspended its work two months later after Lambourne had challenged its existence.

It was staffed by a lay magistrate, a legal practitioner, a former public servant and a retired teacher.

It started work again in 2023 but this was again suspended when the High Court issued an interim injunction.

Then last month the government reconfigured the tribunal and it very quickly produced the report which politicians are shortly to discuss.

What conclusions did the tribunal reach?
Its recommendation is that Parliament should consider removing Lambourne from his role as a Puisne Judge of the Kiribati High Court.

It said he had persistently disregarded the prompt delivery of written judgements, neglected to take thorough measures to prevent any misunderstanding about the fundamental role of a judicial officer, and, by behaving in a manner that created the perception of bias.

Another allegation claimed Lambourne bullied a 57-year-old staffer in the judiciary, by yelling at him. The tribunal said this was unacceptable.

What can Lambourne expect?
Kiribati President Taneti Maamau’s party dominates the Parliament and it will be wanting to eliminate this issue completely ahead of the elections, due in a few months.

So the Parliament could well vote later this week to deport him and for that to happen immediately.

Lambourne would have recourse to appeal the findings of the tribunal but doing that from outside of the country would be an issue.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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