Tonga Chief Justice rejects Lord Sevele’s judicial review application

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Lord Sevele ‘o Vailahi, Former Prime Minister of Tonga along with his former minister Paul Karalus  have failed in their  attempt to bring court proceedings against a Parliamentary committee chaired by long-time democratic activist and Leader of Democratic Party ‘Akilisi Pohiva.

The duo wanted the Supreme Court to review the committee’s report that set up by the Parliament to “gather and fit together all the information in connection with the reconstruction of Nuku’alofa under the guidance of NDC, and to consider the important reason of the need of the people to know its (information) connection” to the T$119 million loan from China for the rebuild of Nuku’alofa.

Lord Sevele and Karalus accused the report of misleading the public into believing that they misappropriated the loan fund.

However the case was for the Chief Justice to decide whether the parliamentary privilege given to parliament members continues to protect the parliamentary committee while its report is disputed in court or not.

Tonga’s attorney general for the committee submitted that Tonga’s Constitution “is the supreme law and parliament must obey it and the Court will strike down anything unconstitutional, but as long as there is no problem like that, we say that the Legislative Assembly in Tonga, like elsewhere in the world should be free to speak and report freely – and be supervised by the Legislative Assembly itself”.

Lord Sevele and Paul Karalus claimed they were not given the opportunity to defend their reputation over accusations in the committee’s report therefore denied their right to natural justice.

In his ruling on May 14 Chief Justice Michael Scott said the Supreme Court has no jurisdiction to interfere with parliament’s internal matters and in this case refused the application by Sevele and Karalus.

The report

The report states unconstitutional decisions made by the NDC, chaired by Sevele and administered by Karalus including alteration of the loan’s terms and conditions without referring it to Parliament for further discussion and adoption.

It says the “T$119 million far exceeded the T$15 million limit, the Parliament must have approved the loan by Resolution”.

“Two projects will cost Tongan taxpayers T$44 million, a significant departure from the original purpose of the loan and a cost well above the T$15 million Constitutional threshold.

“That the Government did not obtain a further Parliamentary Resolution approving the use of China loan funds for these two projects is a violation of the Constitution and of the PFMA”.

The committee in its report also says that “the Prime Minister informed the Parliament about variations to the work plan regarding the Royal Palace and the Vuna Wharf, but did not seek a formal resolution of the Legislative Assembly to approve the change.”

“The statement fails to indicate that the second variation to the scope of works in January 2011 included for the first time the City Assets Building (Molisi Tonga Ltd), owned by the Prime Minister. This variation was not given any publicity, in Parliament or otherwise. The City Assets building was simply embedded in the Government Budget of May 2011”.

New Zealand Lawyer Colin Pidgeon QC acted for Sevele and Karalus assisted by counsel Petunia Tupou. Tonga’s Solicitor General, ‘Aminiasi Kefu acted for the Parliamentary Committee in Supreme Court.

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